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Ariel Rubinstein: The logic of beauty is all in this mind

From a speech by the Professor of Economics at Tel Aviv University, given at the London School of Economics

06 February 2003

In his 27-page dissertation, John Nash formulated the concept that in a strategic situation, each player makes an optimal choice, given the other players' choices – later called the Nash equilibrium. Soon after, the 21-year-old genius mathematician was struck by a long and severe mental illness that prevented him appreciating the enormous impact of his work.

Many economists and other scientists feel that the Nash equilibrium is a way of predicting the outcome of almost any strategic interaction. In my opinion, the greatness of Nash's equilibrium is not that it precisely describes a law of human behaviour, but rather that it describes in a formal way a type of consideration that we use. It may or may not approximate reality, but it certainly describes a possible way in which individuals sometimes look at reality. The best word to describe Nash's work is not "useful" but "beautiful".

Why are we so fascinated by the story of Nash? We are amazed by someone who proves statements that we are unable to fathom and precisely formulate what others thought about only in rough terms.

We are frightened by what is foreign and different, but at the same time we are attracted to these same things. This combination of "crazy" and "genius" is an invitation for a meeting with other worlds. We are looking into the story of Nash and feel that, like astronomers who look to the edge of the universe, we are looking toward the edge of our mind.

Perhaps John Nash's great achievement is something that he did not mean to achieve. His story brings us to be more aware of the battles of our own minds, where we struggle to treat someone suffering from mental illness as someone like all of us.

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