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A Beautiful Mind

The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash

By Sylvia Nasar
16-minute read
Audio available
A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar

The unique story of John Forbes Nash Jr. is one of genius, insanity and recovery. The subject of the Oscar-winning film of the same name, A Beautiful Mind (1998) chronicles the remarkable life of a mathematical genius who, at the age of 30, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had his world flipped upside down. Three decades later, after a miraculous recovery, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in game theory.

  • Students of mathematics or economics looking for inspiration
  • Anyone wanting to understand more about schizophrenia or mental illnesses
  • Fans of the film who want to dive deeper into Nash’s life

Sylvia Nasar is an American journalist who previously worked as economics correspondent for the New York Times. She is also the author of the award-winning Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius.

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A Beautiful Mind

The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash

By Sylvia Nasar
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar
Synopsis

The unique story of John Forbes Nash Jr. is one of genius, insanity and recovery. The subject of the Oscar-winning film of the same name, A Beautiful Mind (1998) chronicles the remarkable life of a mathematical genius who, at the age of 30, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had his world flipped upside down. Three decades later, after a miraculous recovery, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in game theory.

Key idea 1 of 10

Even as a boy, John Forbes Nash Jr. seemed to be a mathematician in the making.

For one of the greatest mathematical minds of the twentieth century, John Nash’s origins were humble enough. He was born in Bluefield, West Virginia, on June 13, 1928. His father, John Sr., was an electrical engineer, and his mother, Margaret, was a schoolteacher.

We don’t know much about his early childhood, but it seems his family was loving and lived a comfortable enough life.

But Nash’s distinctive character soon marked him out. At elementary school, he was extremely socially awkward, always preferring books to people.

In fact, his parents were so worried about his lack of social skills that they enrolled him in socializing activities such as Sunday school and Boy Scouts. These had little effect.

When he was thirteen or fourteen, he began showing early signs of his future mathematical genius. Nash’s passion for mathematics seems to have been ignited by E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, a volume devoted to the lives of great mathematicians.

The early signs of brilliance weren’t what you might expect. He got a B minus in fourth grade math, for instance. But he only got marked down because he wasn’t in the habit of showing his work. This would continue into high school; he’d simply write the answers out or solve the problem in his head using novel, or unorthodox methods.

He didn’t decide to become a mathematician proper until he entered university.

Initially, Nash had had aspirations to become an engineer like his father, so he’d enrolled with a full scholarship to study engineering at Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT), in Pittsburgh, known today as Carnegie Mellon.

But Nash was bored by lab experiments and mechanical drawing. What he really liked were his mathematics courses.

His math professors were astounded: Nash’s methods for solving difficult mathematical puzzles were startlingly original, and they convinced him to switch majors in his second year.

Nash’s destiny was now fixed.

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