The writer Sylvia Nasar travels to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2006 to try and locate a mathematician who solved the Poincaré Conjecture, a “hermit” who lives in the woods. The mathematician is in the running for a Fields Medal, a prestigious math prize. After four days of research, Nasar hasn’t been able to find the mathematician, but on the last day, she stumbles upon his mother’s apartment. The mathematician is there, and he and Nasar begin to talk; she introduces herself as a journalist from New York, and he says that though he didn’t read her book, he “saw the movie with Russell Crowe.” Nasar remarks that “no matter where in the world you are, you’d have to be a real hermit not to know the inspiring story of John Nash.”
Nasar begins her Foreword with an amusing anecdote that shows just how popular the story of A Beautiful Mind has become in the years since she published her book. Even a “hermit” mathematician, isolated in Russia, knew about her reporting on the prominent mathematician John Nash, demonstrating the wide-ranging implications of his “inspiring story” of genius, crisis, and recovery.
Nasar then notes that there are “very few stories” about “the rise and fall of remarkable individuals” with a “genuine third act,” but John Nash’s story has one—a “third act” that has resonated with those who, like Nash, have suffered from mental illness. Nasar describes a letter she received from a reader, a homeless man and former New York Times editor who lost his job after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, who wrote that “John Nash’s story gives me hope that one day the world will come back to me too.”
Nasar attempts to show why Nash’s story—one of many stories about geniuses who have suffered from mental illnesses—is unique. Nash’s story has a “third act,” since he was able to recover from the most severe effects of his illness, regaining his capacity for rational thought.
In the early 1990s, Nasar is an economics reporter for the New York Times who hears about a “crazy mathematician” at Princeton University from another Princeton professor whom she was interviewing: this “crazy mathematician” was John Nash, of the famous “Nash equilibrium.” In 1994, Nash won a Nobel prize in economics, and Nasar pitched a story about him to her Times editor. Though at first, few were willing to go on the record about Nash, Nasar was able to obtain interviews with his friends, family, and colleagues. Lloyd Shapley, a mathematician who knew Nash as a graduate student, described Nash as “immature” and “obnoxious” as a youth—but “what redeemed him,” said Shapley, “was a keen, logical, beautiful mind.”
Shapley’s comments about Nash reflect a perspective that many shared. Nash was disparaged, even reviled, by others for his arrogance as a young mathematician, though his “genius” seemed to make up for these personal failings. However, throughout the biography, Nasar does not attempt to explain away or justify Nash’s poor behavior, arguing instead that ultimately, his brilliance did not obscure his flaws as an individual.
Nasar explains that in June 1995, she decided to travel to Jerusalem to meet with Nash, who was going to attend a game theory conference there; she hoped to begin writing her biography of him. Nash had already written to Nasar to tell her that he wouldn’t be cooperating with her efforts. Eventually, though, Nasar was able to “stitch together thousands of bits and pieces” from interviews, letters, and documents, into a biographical narrative. Nasar credits Alicia Nash, John Nash’s wife, with allowing her to tell Nash’s story, since Alicia thought “it would be inspiring for people with mental illnesses.” Nash never agreed to give Nasar an interview.
Alicia plays an important role in the story of John Nash, though her own life, desires, and passions were often disguised by Nash’s own. Later in life, though, Alicia would exercise her own authority and agency, helping Nash to recover from his illness and allowing his story of redemption to be told.
Nasar and Nash met after the publication of A Beautiful Mind, and Nash explained to Nasar that he now felt that he had his life back after a debilitating struggle with mental illness. Nasar notes that readers of her book have told her that “they’ll never again pass someone on the street with matted hair and filthy clothes who’s shouting at the air” without thinking of them as someone like John Nash, someone with talents, with a past and a future. Nasar also explains that the movie adaptation of A Beautiful Mind turned John Nash into a celebrity: his story had a broad appeal, especially to children and teenagers, since Nash was himself young when he made many of his famous discoveries. Nasar closes the Foreword with an excerpt from a letter from a nine-year-old girl who wrote to Nash to tell him that she admired his work.
Before A Beautiful Mind, few narratives involving individuals who recovered from debilitating mental illnesses had been written. Nasar’s biography helped to destigmatize mental illness, encouraging readers to think of those who suffer from illnesses like schizophrenia as complex, fully formed individuals—not crazy or hopeless—and suggesting that even people who seem abnormal or outcast can be brilliant, impactful thinkers.