[Paleopsych] New Scientist Interview: (Nash) Return of a 'beautiful mind'

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jan 29 16:56:21 UTC 2005

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
    long time.

    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
    difficult reality?

    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

More information about the paleopsych mailing list