Nash arrives in Princeton in September 1948 as a 20-year-old and is greeted by a “genteel, prerevolutionary village,” a small town with polished houses and “college-Gothic” buildings. Fine Hall, the university’s mathematics building, was built in the style of Oxford University, an imposing but luxurious “red brick and slate fortress.” Princeton in 1948 became a Mecca for mathematicians: “what Paris once was to painters and novelists, Vienna to psychoanalysts and architects.” Fine Hall’s faculty members are top-notch, though Princeton had not always had this reputation. In the early 1900s, when Woodrow Wilson was its president, Wilson’s best friend, mathematician Henry Burchard Fine—Fine Hall’s namesake—convinced him to hire scientists in order to diversify the university faculty.
Nasar describes the origins of Princeton’s world-class math program, describing Princeton as an imposing yet vibrant community of scientists conducting cutting-edge work. Nasar suggests that Princeton was the reason Nash became a world-class scholar, since it offered an environment in which his genius was sought-after and nurtured.
In the first half of the 20th century, Princeton had become a home for Europe’s rising stars in mathematics—including John von Neumann—who were financed by research fellowships funded by the wealthy Rockefeller family. Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a research center unaffiliated to the university but located close to its campus, also helped to attract leading European scholars, including Albert Einstein. This “brain drain” from Europe “electrified” the American scientific scene and coincided with World War II. Scientists at Princeton were recruited to help with code-breaking, strategy, and weaponry: the war demonstrated the usefulness and wide applications of mathematical theory, as well as the “superiority of sophisticated mathematical analysis over educated guesses.” Princeton benefitted from the newfound popularity of mathematics, and math itself became a “dynamic enterprise.”
Throughout A Beautiful Mind, Nasar shows how Nash’s quest for knowledge as a mathematician helped him, and other prominent Princeton scientists, to forge connections to fields outside of mathematics, including economics, military strategy, and human behavior. Ironically, Nash himself was a loner, often disconnected from the outside world.