[Paleopsych] New Scientist Interview: (Nash) Return of a 'beautiful mind'
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Return of a 'beautiful mind'
John Nash was recognised by his colleagues as a genius in 1948 when he
was accepted into Princeton University's graduate programme at the age
of 20. A year later he found a mathematical way for hostile parties to
settle arguments to mutual advantage. Known as the Nash equilibrium,
his major contribution to mathematics remains as useful today - as
shown by recent auctions of bandwidth to mobile phone companies - as
it was in cold war politics. It gained him a Nobel prize for economics
in 1994. He now researches problems in cosmology and quantum theory
An obvious question to kick off with: is there a connection between
madness and genius?
There's certainly a connection between mental illness and "thinking
out of the box". If you're going to be anything like a genius you have
to think out of the box. In that sense genius is something other than
perfect normality, but I wouldn't say there is a strong connection.
Mathematicians are comparatively sane as a group; it's the people who
study logic that are not so sane. Logical scholars like Kurt Gödel are
certainly not a good example of sanity.
You're doing mathematics again, looking at aspects of relativity and
presenting your research at conferences. Are you doing good work?
Well, these subjects are things I've been thinking about for a long
time. In some ways I've been very amateurish in approaching them. Yes,
I think I am doing good work. Maybe not great work, but good work.
Some mathematicians, notably John von Neumann, have said that a
mathematician will have done all his best work by the time he's
reached 30. You're not too old to produce decent maths?
I have never said that. There are some statistics about when people do
good mathematical work. It is more rare for people to do notable
things at a later age, but it does occur. Part of the thing might be
that a mathematician does not need a laboratory. Maybe scientists need
more time to get a good laboratory running. If that delays them,
they're not completing their work until a later age, whereas a
mathematician gets it done earlier.
What's it like to have become famous as a mathematician through
Hollywood's influence? Do you find it awkward that people now know
about your personal life without knowing much about your work?
It is a bit of a burden. You become quite well known, without it being
the best type of reputation to have. To be considered a distinguished
mathematician by mathematicians is one thing, but to be considered by
the public to be a distinguished mathematician, well, that's something
else. It does help that there is a lot of fiction in the movie. It's
based on my life but there are some variations - and the other
characters are more or less all fictional.
Do you even recognise yourself in A Beautiful Mind?
It's not me, but Russell Crowe plays the role well. I didn't meet him
before the movie. Just his speech coach came to see me a few times.
The idea was that Crowe would be modelling my accent and the flavour
of my speech. In the end he simply used a southern accent, which is
not the same as mine. I only met him when they were actually doing the
movie, and at the Oscar event.
Didn't the director want you to be more involved?
Ron Howard did not want the real person to interfere with the movie
person. When he made Apollo 13, some of the people that were
cooperating with him were astronauts, and he felt there was conflict
when you get the real astronauts too involved with the people in the
movie. He wanted the story in A Beautiful Mind to move forward well,
without getting into too much detail.
Were you involved in the screenplay?
No, that wasn't the deal. The writers had complete artistic freedom.
It worked out well, of course. They won Oscars.
At the end of the film, we see a happily-ever-after scenario when you
have recovered from mental illness. Was that really like a second
It was more of a return than a second birth. I have a son who is
disturbed through mental illness. He is a mathematician. He got as far
as a PhD and then he got disturbed. If he could come back it wouldn't
be a rebirth, it would be like a return.
Mental illness is a major factor in your life. Have you ever been
involved in campaigning about the issues it raises?
I've gotten involved in some issues, and gone to scientific meetings
as a guest, but I don't take all the opportunities: some are not of
the right type. Some people try to campaign against the stigma of
mental illness, but you can't remove the stigma without removing the
illness. It is rational to understand people as sick or not sick: to
remove stigma you have to make everyone blind to the existence of the
So the taint is unavoidable?
What I'm saying is, the natural attitude is not necessarily entirely
wrong: insanity is something that is undesirable. Of course,
psychiatrists would like people in the care of psychiatrists not to be
stigmatised. Both psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies say
people who are taking drugs for mental illness should not be
stigmatised. But there are some interests involved here. There are
people who think the [mentally ill] people are lazy, taking advantage
of society through insanity - well, in a sense that is the truth. To
say people should not think like that is to say they should favour the
culture of how mental illness is dealt with now.
You don't think the current treatments merit favour? You have said
that the drugs used to treat the mentally ill can be overrated, and
that they haven't increased the proportion of people who recover to
the point where they don't need drugs. Is that true?
Well, I wouldn't say it in those words. There is evolution in this
area: there is progress in types of drugs available. The thing I do
notice is acceptance of something that is not a cure. For mental
illness, a person who is dependent on drugs and gets continued
attention from psychiatrists is considered OK. I think the ideal could
be higher. These people do not usually function on a level
corresponding to the level on which they would have functioned before
their mental illness. So a quite low level of function is accepted as
being good treatment. But you're not really sane if you need drugs to
be sane; you haven't reached the level of rationality.
What about you? Do you still hear voices?
I was a long way into mental illness before I heard any voices.
Ultimately I realised I am generating these voices in my own mind:
this is dreaming, this is not communication. This is coming from an
internal source, not from the cosmos. And simply to understand that is
to escape from the thing in principle. After understanding that, the
voices died out. My son hears voices, but I haven't heard any for a
So was there an element of rational decision-making involved in
dealing with your symptoms? There's a lot of choice in this, I think.
I know this is not the standard point of view. The standard doctrine
is that we are supposed to be non-stigmatic in terms of these people:
they are constitutionally, necessarily, schizophrenic. But I think
there is an element of choice. A person doesn't pass into insanity
when their situations are good. If their personal life is successful,
people don't become insane. When they're not so happy, when things
aren't so good, then they may become clinically depressed, and then
maybe schizophrenic. Wealthy people are less likely to become
schizophrenic than people who are not wealthy.
Are you saying that some people simply choose to opt out of a
It provides an escape. In another way, a person might choose a
monastic life; become a monk or a nun. There are various forms of
escape in human societies, leading to another life where you do not
face the same challenges, the same burdens.
So is it a rational choice to come back?
Being sane is like being a computer that is properly programmed to do
useful things. Being insane is like being a computer that is not
programmed to do anything useful. You have to come back to where you
are expected to work. I can see that in my son. He does not appreciate
work. We can't get him to do anything around the house. If he could be
given small chores and do them, he would be more ready to come out of
it. I don't know whether he'll come out of schizophrenia or not now.
He has reached an advanced stage now because it's gone on so long.
"Mathematicians are comparatively sane as a group; it's the people who
study logic that are not so sane"
Your work on bargaining solutions - the Nash equilibrium - still has
broad impact. It was used to design the recent auctions of microwave
spectrum bandwidths for mobile phones, for instance. Are you surprised
by the importance of your work?
It is remarkable the way it has been applied in auctions. It is now a
big-money, billion-dollar industry. I did see the application
possibilities right from the start: some of my earliest publications
were in econometrics.
When you came up with the Nash equilibrium, the United Nations had
just formed, and a few people were pushing for a world government.
Your colleagues were thinking only about optimistic bargaining
situations involving mutual cooperation. You solved the problem of
finding bargaining solutions for situations where people won't
cooperate. Is that why your work seemed so radical - because it ran
contrary to the zeitgeist and exposed the fact that there's always a
way to get by without cooperation?
At the time my idea was offbeat or radical, but in a sense it was
classical. After all, economics works this way. I know that von
Neumann and Einstein thought that there could be some sort of
coordinating world leadership. It's easy to say there should not be
any war. When the Pope talks about war and peace, you know without
listening what he will say. But war is not in the ideal world, it's in
the real world. It will happen.
Do you see world politics as an experimental lab for the mathematics
of game theory?
It could be seen that way. But if you consider game theory from a more
general point of view, it doesn't need to be mathematical. My personal
view is that Machiavelli was really a great game theorist, and he's
not mathematical at all.
Did the Nobel prize change anything for you?
It changed everything for me. Before the Nobel I wasn't recognised at
all. I was quoted and cited in economics and game theory, but beyond
that I didn't have any recognition. And without the Nobel prize, of
course, there wouldn't have been any movie.
What about the success of the movie - has that changed anything?
Well, there is a certain amount of money for authorising a movie. I'm
still living in the same house in Princeton. I still don't have enough
money to buy a mansion.
From issue 2478 of New Scientist magazine, 18 December 2004, page 46
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