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Monday, December 06, 2021

Reason, unreason

Mathematician John Nash was a rational thinker, who knew the limits of the rational.

By: Express News Service |
Updated: May 26, 2015 12:00:46 am
FILE - In this Oct. 11, 1994 file photo, Princeton University professor John Nash speaks during a news conference at the school in Princeton, N.J., after being named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for economics. Nash, whose struggle with schizophrenia was chronicled in the 2001 movie "A Beautiful Mind,” died in a car crash along with his wife in New Jersey on Saturday, May 23, 2015, police said. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File) FILE – In this Oct. 11, 1994 file photo, Princeton University professor John Nash speaks during a news conference at the school in Princeton, N.J., after being named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for economics.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

John Nash Jr, the mathematician whose work on non-cooperative game theory would become fundamental to modern economics and win the Nobel Prize in 1994, is gone. The subject of a book and a famous movie, his struggle with paranoid schizophrenia and his relationship with his wife, Alice, who died with him in the car crash, are well known. It is known that he had a beautiful mind. But what is a beautiful mind?

For Nash, the mind seemed to come into being when it knew itself. His autobiographical note for the Nobel starts impersonally, as though speaking of someone else: “My beginning as a legally recognised individual occurred on June 13, 1928, in Bluefield, West Virginia”. It is only when he remembers reading the Compton’s Pictured Encyclopaedia that Nash recognises this growing, reasoning mind as himself. In the years to come, it would look for rational abstractions rather than immediate experience. The “world’s knowledge” was valued over the small-town community’s. The power to “think and understand or learn facts” was tripped up by the business of pipettes and titration in chemical laboratories. It was this keen and rational mind that could discern the dance of numbers which govern apparently random occurrences and shape our realities.

How did this mind know itself when it lost the power to reason, travelling down “delusional lines of thinking” as Nash puts it? The 25 years spent struggling with the illness are described as a “sort of vacation”, perhaps from himself. In the end, it would be the rational decision to reject delusions that would bring him back. Only to find that “rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person’s conception of his relation to the cosmos”. Nash had journeyed from reason to unreason to the glittering worlds that lay beyond. His was the scientific intellect that saw order beneath our daily lives, his was the tortured imagination that saw the irrational chaos which swirls still beneath it. Perhaps there lies the fascination of his beautiful mind.

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