Sylvia Nasar

The Life and Times of John F. Nash Jr.

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Professor Sylvia Nasar
Knight Professor of Busines Journalism, Columbia University
Author, A Beautiful Mind


Well, the life and times of Professor John F. Nash Jr., famed mathematician, has recently garnered much attention.   The movie A Beautiful Mind swept through this year’s Academy Awards, and the biography on which it was based entitled, “A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius John Forbes Nash” by Sylvia Nasar has earned it’s share of accolades as well.   It won the 1998 Book Critic’s Circle Award for Biography, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was number one on the New York Times’ bestseller list.   The author, Prof. Sylvia Nasar joins us today to discuss her book.   Professor Nasar is both an accomplished economist and journalist and is the first John S. and James L. Knight Professor at Columbia University‘s Graduate School of Journalism.   She is in the bay area today to give a lecture for the American Institute of Mathematics in Palo Alto.   Charles Lee (CL) talks to Sylica Nasar (SN):

CL: Professor Nasar, thank you very much for joining us today.

SN: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

CL: Well, Professor Nasar.   I think most of our listeners have seen the movie, “A Beautiful Mind”, but one thing that strikes me upon reading the book is the striking difference between the Hollywood version of Nash and the real life John Nash.   I’m wondering if you can comment a little about that?

SN: Well, I think that the movie version focused on what was most compelling about Nash’s story, the things that drew me to it when I heard about him first in 1993 when I was a reporter at the times. And, I heard that he might win a Nobel, I was really astonished.   There are so many stories in film and literature and theatre about a spectacular rise followed by a devastating fall, think about Icarus, but there are very few stories, much less real ones, with a genuine third act.   And, the idea that someone who had fallen so far, who had been lost for so long, three decades in which Nash had just about disappeared from the world, that someone like that could be found, could reemerge struck me as just amazing, and that’s what made me want to write this story.   And, I think that’s what the movie focuses on.   The other extraordinary thing about Nash was that his reemergence was made possible by this community of mathematicians who never stopped valuing him, never abandoned him, and this extraordinary women, his wife Alicia, who refused to give up on him. And, the movie was built around that.   So, to me, of course a two and a half hour movie is not the same as a 450-page biography, but in a way, I think it was a wonderful version, yes fictionalized, but a wonderful version of his story.

CL: What aspect of the actual story of John Nash would you really like to have seen portrayed in the film?

SN: Well, I think that what was so terrific about the movie, and what makes it so incredibly meaningful to many people who see it, is that the audience was able to put itself through a device, which I won’t reveal, since there must be some people who haven’t seen the movie yet, but able to put themselves in John Nash’s shoes, to see the world through the eyes of someone who can no longer distinguish between delusion and reality, someone for whom unreality is as real as you are sitting in front of me right now.   And, that is why I have had so many people, and the same is true for Ron Howard, so may people come up to me and say things like, “I saw this movie with my family.   For the first time, they were able to understand what I was struggling with.”   Okay.   And, that’s huge.   And, I don’t think that any movie depicting someone with a serious mental illness has ever done that.   What’s lovely is that this is a movie that people leave wanting to know more.   And, they want to know more about John Nash.   They want to know more about his contributions.   They want to know more about how he recovered from an illness that most people still today believe is a life sentence.   And, they’ve turned to the book, and to the American Experience documentary.   They’re all different ways of capturing what is just an amazing story.

CL: There’s certainly this sense in the book and the movie that for Nash, genius and madness might go hand-in-hand.   There’s a quote in the book with Nash saying that the reason he believed such wild ideas was became they came from the same place as his mathematical ideas.

SN: That’s right.

CL: Do you think genius and madness are linked?

SN: I think that scholars like K. Jameson have shown pretty convincingly that there’s a link between some kinds of madness, namely bipolar disorder that is mania and depression, and genius.   Lots of painters, poets, and composers, it turns out, suffered from depression or were bipolar.   However, schizophrenia is different.   It is so debilitating.   It sets in generally at such a young age.   It is so persistent that, as in Nash’s case, it really attacks those things about the mind and the personality that are the source of important creative work.   In fact, the only other example I could find of an acknowledged genius who later suffered from schizophrenia was Nijinsky.   And, Nijinsky never again danced or created ballets after age 44, which is when he got sick.   What happened to Nash is once his illness became full blown he stopped doing mathematics.   He became interested in numerology.   He thought he was the messiah.   He was looking for secrets to the universe, not solutions to mathematical problems.

Jef RaskinCL: The recovery of John Nash seems to be the exception in the case of schizophrenia.

SN: Well, it is and it isn’t.   John Nash recovered basically because of the chemistry of aging.   And, it turns out that somewhere between 10-20% of people who suffer from long-term, chronic schizophrenia have dramatic improvements after about 38.   And he was in this, and I use the word “lucky” in quotes, minority.   Nash also had his own volition that obviously played a role.   He talks a lot about that, as the urgency of the symptoms began to die down, that he very much wanted to reconnect with reality.   He learned to recognize the delusional thoughts, realized that the voices he was hearing weren’t people but rather voices in his own mind.   And, he consciously tried to put them aside.   And of course he also had a reason for wanting to reconnect, and that is that there were people around him who loved him and saw him for what he had been.   So in one sense, his story is very unusual.   But, it is also the story of many people now, who because of new drugs not available when he got ill, and the support of their families, and their own struggles with the illness, who manage to reclaim some or much of their lives.   In a way to me now, what makes Nash’s story so powerful is not that it’s just wonderfully dramatic and mythical, but that for many people who have struggled with this illness, in an atmosphere of ignorance, stigma, and pessimism, it’s a story of hope.   And, it says something that is very real, which is people can come back.

CL: It certainly is a very powerful story.

SN: It’s also an amazingly romantic story, not a conventional romance, but very lovely.

CL: And, of course, there is his eventual awarding of the Nobel Prize.   One of the interesting things about that is the politics that went on behind the scenes of the Nobel.

SN: Well, that came as a big surprise to me, because that is a piece of his story that I didn’t really report until I was well into writing the book.   And, here’s what it was.   John Nash’s great contribution to economics, and remember he was a pure mathematician, so this is only one of the things that he did, his greatest contribution to economics was a Ph.D. dissertation he wrote at the age of 21 in which he really developed a theory of human conflict and cooperation, a new theory of games that became hugely influential in economics starting in the early ‘80s.   Now, Nash didn’t get the Nobel until 1994, even though he was widely regarded in the economic profession as one of the great giants, on par with Ken Arrow and Paul Samuelson, just a foundational thinker.   He didn’t get the prize until 1994 because of the reservations of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which administers the economics Nobel, about someone with a history of mental illness.   And, to their great credit, and particular a handful of people on the prize committee in the academy, who came to the conclusion that a mental illness, just like a physical illness, should not be a bar to recognition of something that was really a great breakthrough.   It’s really a great credit to them that Nash got the prize, because it was almost voted down the morning that the prize is announced.   There is a final vote, usually a pro-forma vote, of the whole academy.   And, there was tremendous sentiment among some quarters of the academy that you can never recover from schizophrenia, that this was not the same mind that had invented the Nash equilibrium and the theory of non-cooperative games, and that therefore Nash should not get the prize.   The vote squeaked through, and the Nobel committee made history. I know that even before the movie got best picture, even before that, the chairman of the prize committee, Assir Linbeck, a wonderful man, said to me, “We lifted him out of darkness.”   And, he said that it was only one of two prizes that really meant something to him in a personal and emotional way, because it had such a big impact on Nash’s life.   Without that prize, we wouldn’t be talking about his story today.   People wouldn’t know about it, because he would have died in the obscurity and poverty to which he had sunk.

CL: How did you become interested in this story, and what are your opinions of the real John Nash?

SN: Well, first of all, I’ll start with the second.   I spent two and a half years working on the book.   Before that I had written a profile of Nash, this is how it all got started, for the New York Times.   And, I think I probably know more about the facts of John Nash’s Life than any other person alive.

CL: Maybe even more than John Nash.

SN: Possibly, even more than John Nash, in some ways.   That’s what happens when you’re someone’s biographer.   But, I have to say that I never, and certainly not now, ever lost the feeling of admiration, and wonder, and affection for John Nash.   He did not cooperate with the book.   He was always happy to talk with me informally, if we met at an academic meeting or a mutual friends house for dinner.   But, we didn’t become friends until after the book was published.   My first on-the-record interview with him was a piece that I did for the New York Times on how Nobel Laureates spend their prize money.   So, it’s been an extraordinary relationship.   Of course, since I did graduate work in economics I knew what the Nash equilibrium was.   Everyone who takes one economics course knows the Nash equilibrium.   Of course, you never think this person could still be alive, because it’s really contemporaneous with the Min-Max Theorem of Von Neumann, and Von Neumann died in the ‘50s.   So, when in 1993, I was gossiping with a Princeton professor who had just come back from Stockholm, just gossiping about the Nobel Prize that year and who might be on the short list.   When I heard that this mentally ill mathematician who had haunted the mathematics building at Princeton for years might be on the short list for an economics Nobel.   Well, I said, “Who’s that?”   And when he said, “Nash.”   I said, “Well, not the Nash of the Nash Equilibrium?”   So, the thought was immediately intriguing, because I knew that Nash had been one of the giants.   I, of course, had no idea of his history.   So, when I learned that he might win the prize and that he seemed to have recovered from schizophrenia, I thought, “Oh my god, this is the most amazing story I’ve ever heard as a reporter.”   I didn’t write the story then because I thought, and was convinced by a friend of Nash’s in Princeton, most people on the short list for the Nobel never win one.   It seemed like an incredible long shot, and that in the absence of that, writing about him in the New York Times would be an incredible invasion of privacy.   So, it wasn’t until a year and a half later, when I’m sitting at my desk on the day economics Nobel’s are announced, and I see Nash’s name.   At that point I jumped up, ran over to the business editor, and blurted out a few lines, about who Nash was and the amazing turn of events.   And, you know, Glen got tears in his eyes, and I said, “Okay.   I’m going to write this story.”   And, by the way, nobody in the economics and mathematics community was going to cooperate, and put the schizophrenia on-the-record.   Because even after he won a Nobel, his friend’s believed that the stigma of schizophrenia was so great that they did not want to put it on-the-record.   And, it was not until I finally learned that he had a sister, and it was Martha Nash Lagg, wonderful woman, very courageous, who decided that she was going to break the silence.   Otherwise again, we wouldn’t have heard this amazing story.

CL: Well, it looks like we’re running a little bit out of time right now.   But, you’re giving two talks in the Bay Area today.

SN: Yes, I’m speaking tonight at Stanford University at an event sponsored by the American Institute of Mathematics.   Tomorrow, I’ll be doing a conversation at the Commonwealth Club with mathematician Bob Osserman. Their last guest was Tom Stoppard.   I think that’s going to be very interesting.   And, on Saturday night, I’ll be doing a book signing back at Kepler’s in Palo Alto.   It’s wonderful to be here, because so many people have expressed interest in Nash’s life and work.

CL: His story has captivated us all.   Well, Professor Nasar, I just want to thank you very much for joining us today.

SN: Well, thank you.   I had a great time.   Take care.

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