Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Tuesday, Oct 18, 2005
Columns - Public Policy Note
Lessons from Nash and the Nobel
THE Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences for 2005 the Economics Nobel has been awarded jointly to Robert J. Aumann of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and Thomas C. Schelling of the University of Maryland "for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and co-operation through game-theory analysis".
The work of these Nobel Laureates has implications for such worldly problems as competitive strategies of firms, delegation of political power for decision-making, wage negotiations and international trade agreements.
Eleven years ago, game theory was in Nobel news for the first time. That was especially momentous for one gentleman from Princeton who lived through the best and worst of times in terms of mental state. For his seminal contributions in game theory, John Forbes Nash, Jr. shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics with Hungarian-American economist John Harsanyi and German mathematician Reinhard Selten.
Prof Nash was born on June 13, 1928 in Bluefield, West Virginia. His father, an electrical engineer, worked for the local utility company. His mother was a teacher of English.
In his autobiography published in The Nobel Prizes 1994 (issued by the Nobel Foundation, Stockholm in 1995), one finds that as a child he enjoyed reading Compton's Pictured Encyclopaedia and "learned a lot" from it. As a student in high school, he read the classic Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell and succeeded in proving the `classic Fermat theorem about an integer multiplied by itself p times, where p is a prime'.
In his senior year of high school, Nash won a coveted Westinghouse scholarship, one of only ten awarded in the nation. For his undergraduate study, he entered Carnegie Tech. (now known as the Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh as a student of chemical engineering, switched to chemistry and finally ended up in mathematics.
About the shift and subsequent progress, he wrote: "And in the end I had learned and progressed so much in mathematics that they gave me an M.S. in addition to my B.S. when I graduated." For post-graduate study, he chose Princeton over Harvard for at least three reasons: The Princeton Fellowship was somewhat more generous; Princeton seemed more interested in getting him to come there; and Princeton was much nearer Bluefield.
An elective in International Economics at Carnegie gave Nash exposure to economic ideas and problems, leading to the preparation of the paper "The Bargaining Problem," subsequently published in Econometrica of April 1950. His interest in the study of game theory continued since then.
After his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1950 at age 22 and working for a while, Nash joined MIT in the summer of 1951 as "the C.L.E. Moore Instructor" and carried out research in mathematics at MIT and Princeton.
Nash's `mental disturbances' began in early 1959 and he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for the next 25-30 years. Throughout most of the period, however, he had the sympathy and support of his wife and friends.
In his 1994 autobiography he wrote about his future as follows: "Statistically, it would seem improbable that any mathematician or scientist, at the age of 66, would be able through continued research efforts, to add much to his or her previous achievements. However, I am still making the effort and it is conceivable that with the gap period of about 25 years of partially deluded thinking providing a sort of vacation, my situation may be atypical. Thus I have hopes of being able to achieve something of value through my current studies or with any new ideas that come in the future."
This observation from the Laureate should inspire all those who are now labelled as senior citizens and who have a penchant for life-long learning.
Today, Nash serves in the Department of Mathematics at Princeton as Senior Research Mathematician. On his very brief home-page on the Princeton site, he says that his present research interests are in logic, game theory, and cosmology and gravitation.
His life and achievements were the basis of a widely acclaimed biography. A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, by Sylvia Nasar (Simon & Schuster, 1998), won the National Book Critics Award for Biography and many others.
Nasar, who is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia University, must have spent a lot of time and energy for reconstructing the beautiful mind that has not only given insights into game theory but also suffered mental disturbances manifesting in such bizarre and unimaginable proclamations as being the emperor of Antarctica.
The biographer's task was not quite easy, given that some 25-30 years of Nash's life were practically lost and the only clues of that time are provided by outward manifestations and what others thought about his mind.
The biographer calls it a compelling "story about the mystery of the human mind, in three acts: genius, madness, reawakening". A reviewer of his biography writes in the July 8, 1998 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly that Professor Nash, despite his malady, spent decades wandering around Princeton, and in the 1970s and 1980s, became known to students as "the library crazy man" and "the Phantom of Fine Hall" and was given free access to the computer centre, where he eventually progressed from working on cryptic numerology back into real mathematics.
"The book is a fascinating account of creativity barely under control, of a mathematical genius who was driven by and eventually overwhelmed by his own inner demons. It represents a staggering feat of writing and reporting, and includes an unprecedented look at the inner workings of the Nobel Prize committee," wrote a reviewer of the book in Business Week. Most reviewers acknowledge the remarkable detail Nasar provided in the precious volume, while taking potshots on the lack of sufficient coverage of game theory!
Nash received even more attention when A Beautiful Mind was made into a film. Newsweek called it a beautiful mystery. The life of Professor Nash was immortalised in the film, with his character portrayed by Australian actor Russel Crowe. The film received four Oscars in 2002: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay.
What would one learn from Nash, the Nobel and the movie? First, children need to be exposed to the masters in mathematics and science to begin dreaming early on about becoming great. How many Indian children are exposed to Ramanujans and Ramans?
Second, one needs a cooperative environment produced by highly evolved minds to make sure that a beautiful mind is protected and nourished, even if it means that some of its idiosyncrasies are to be tolerated. It was his good fortune that Ramanujan was noticed and nourished by Prof Hardy and was not left behind by status-seeking officials and jealousy-ridden pseudo intellectuals.
Third, biographers and moviemakers must have the courage of conviction to let their prowess focus on a living genius, something that Bollywood and Tollywood operatives may note.
(The author, formerly with the National University of Singapore and the World Bank, is Professor Emeritus, GITAM Institute of Foreign Trade, Visakhapatnam. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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