All about Nash: Talking bargaining and Bach
John Nash was the pawn of a momentous conspiracy, a calculated sabotage hinging on complex theories of negotiation. But this game did not star Cold Warriors in black hats and plummy British lads misplaced on an American campus, as depicted in last year’s film A Beautiful Mind.
Nash was a brilliant but troubled mathematician who altered the field of game theory before succumbing to the madness of schizophrenia. At the age of 30 he experienced his first full-blown delusional breakdown. He continued to be troubled by episodic dementia for three decades before a remarkable remission allowed him to retrieve his lucidity, his place in society, and, most fantastically, the international prestige of a Nobel Prize.
But as Sylvia Nasar recounts in a chapter of Nash’s biography left on Hollywood’s cutting-room floor, the triumphant acceptance speech almost didn’t take place.
For the first time since the inception of the Nobel Prize for economics, the favorite candidate in 1994 was not a unanimous winner. When the selection committee’s decision was put before the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for a rubber-stamp approval, the lone opponent to Nash’s selection staged a subversive attack. He began by questioning the decision to honor a man with a history of mental illness, and nearly succeeded in dumping the economics prize from the Nobel list for good.
The irony of the Swedish fracas can be found in the thesis for which Nash was belatedly being honored. It is known as “the bargaining problem.”
Nasar’s award-winning biography rests largely on the memories of people whose percussive interactions with Nash illuminate his shadowy life like a telestrater on a tricky billiard shot. The book is dedicated to his wife, Alicia, who led Nash through his madness to international recognition and eventual peace of mind.
Both the leading and incidental characters of this story are well suited for the silver screen: Alicia is beautiful and determined; John is belligerent and brash, redeemed only by his genius. Albert Einstein makes a cameo appearance, when the young Nash insists on a meeting in which he trashes quantum theory. Unfortunately, the film saw fit to embellish Nash’s very real hallucinations in the form of a dogmatic Department Of Defense agent and a phantom roommate.
More sadly, the movie excluded the most cinematic characteristic of John Forbes Nash Jr.: that he was rarely to be seen among the Princeton rambles without a Bach fugue upon his whistling lips.
Now that is a beautiful mind.
Sylvia Nasar will speak about John Forbes Nash Jr. on Friday, December 13, at 3pm in the Rotunda Dome Room at UVA. She is the guest of the Department of Economics, and the lecture marks the retirement of professor John Whittaker.