The autumnal sadness of the
Princeton ghost
Ariel
Rubinstein Published:
25 April 2003

Title: The
Essential John Nash 

Editor: Harold W. Kuhn and Sylvia
Nasar 

Reviewer: Ariel Rubinstien 

Publisher: Princeton University Press 

ISBN: 0 691
09527 2 

Pages: 224 

Price: £19.95  What
is "the essential John Nash?" For many, he will forever be
identified with the personality depicted in the film A
Beautiful Mind , who at the end bows to the king of
Sweden during the Nobel prize ceremony.
For those who study game theory and economics, the essence
of Nash is found in the socalled Nash equilibrium, a concept
that jumps out at any student of game theory from almost any
article in the field and from every single textbook.
Nash won the prize for his fundamental contributions to
game theory, a collection of formal models serving as tools to
discuss the interaction of rational players; a theory that has
moved in the past 20 years from the fringe of economics to its
central strand.
The photo of the handsome, smiling Nash that appears on the
jacket of this book was taken in the 1950s, the period during
which he wrote the seminal contributions that eventually won
him the Nobel prize in 1994. The cracks on the picture provide
a hint of an essential period in Nash's life. For more than 20
years, he appeared as a mysterious figure at Princeton
University, sloppily dressed, hunched over a cafeteria table
with piles of computer printouts with strange calculations,
reading newspapers others had left on the tables. This was the
period Nash describes as the "time of my change from
scientific rationality of thinking into the delusional
thinking characteristic of persons who are psychiatrically
diagnosed as 'schizophrenic'".
I believe that Nash would most appreciate it if we
identified "the essential John Nash" with the collection of
all his works, from the first to the last letter he will one
day write. Thus, the book that contains reprints of Nash's
eight most important papers, both in game theory and
mathematics, fits his own spirit.
What further makes the book "the essential John Nash" is
the inclusion of two documents in which he talks about
himself: the autobiography he was asked to prepare for the
Nobel proceedings and a 45line afterword that concludes the
book. Nash's papers in economics are all extremely short,
elegant and beautiful. So are these two documents, which
convey his introspective personality better than anything
else. Princeton University Press enriches us with one of the
most beautifully designed economics book I have ever seen and
at a low price.
The book's editors are two key players in the "Nash game".
Harold Kuhn is a prominent Princeton mathematics professor.
His name is widely familiar in economics and mathematics in
the context of the KuhnTucker theorem that launched the
theory of nonlinear programming in 1950. Kuhn was not only
one of Nash's fellow graduate students and a member of the
circle of brilliant minds surrounding Nash during his
Princeton graduate days, he was also a constant member of the
network of friends and colleagues who gave both professional
and emotional support to Nash in the decades in which he was
sick.
Kuhn was also a key figure in the process that led the
Nobel committee to granting the prize to a person suspected of
being someone who might "embarrass the king". Kuhn's comments
on Nash, and some of the articles, are written in his special
personal style: short words that convey a message of care and
depth.
The second editor, Sylvia Nasar, adds to the book an
introduction consisting of a wonderful summary of Nash's life.
Her encounter with the life of Nash started from the Nobel
announcement, when dozens of other journalists trumpeted game
theory and tried to explain it. Nasar was the only journalist
who recognised that the announcement was not merely a
proclamation of the victory for game theory within economics
but, more important, a human event. She published a long
article in The New York Times in which she described
Nash as a young and handsome genius, as a sick person who
roams Princeton's idyllic campus like a ghost, and as a
recovered man who wins the Nobel prize and returns to
research. The moving article paved the way for her book A
Beautiful Mind .
Nasar is a masterly writer who ran to the far corners of
the world to chase down bits of missing information in her
efforts to get to the bottom of Nash's mind. A Beautiful
Mind was a bestseller and contained the material that
inspired the Oscarwinning film. Both the book and the film
encouraged mentally ill people and fascinated millions all
over the world.
Why are we so intrigued by the story of John Nash? We are
curious to understand a person who proves theorems we are
unable to fathom. We imagine the voices from another world he
has heard. We ask where he was for 30 years during which he
walked among us but wasn't here. We are frightened and we are
attracted by this combination of "crazy" and "genius", an
invitation for visiting the edge of our own minds.
The movie has a cliched, happy ending. I would opt for a
sadder one. This is probably the reason that I am moved so
much by The Essential John Nash , which I see as the
missing, true end of the movie. Not tragic, not happy. A
mixture of scholarly brilliance and autumnal sadness that is
summarised so well by Nash himself in the book's afterword.
He writes: "The point of view of the person whose work and
history become the subject matter of a book is different than
that of the readers of the book. In a person's total life
experience there is really no "inessential" and no
"essential". The big thing is that a human has the opportunity
and the experience of existence and life, and he or she may
hope for reincarnation or to go to heaven when the life is
indeed over and history."
Ariel Rubinstein is professor of economics, Tel Aviv
University, Israel, and Princeton University, New Jersey, US.
