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Saturday, Jan.

05, 2002

'A Beautiful Mind:' American Pi


By Jonathan David Farley

A few months ago, I was at a party when somebody said, "Listen to this joke: Let epsilon be a large
negative number..." Those of us who were mathematicians cracked up laughing; everybody else stood
around looking puzzled.
I would have never laughed at that same joke fourteen years ago. That was the year before I entered
college, and I visited the Math Department at Harvard University along with a few other students who,
like me, intended to major in math. I remember two things from that visit: First, a very strange and
sheepish boy a senior with a perpetual five o'clock shadow and wide, staring eyes, someone whom we
might uncharitably call a "geek" or a "nerd." It was clear that mathematics was his entire life, and he was
undoubtedly good at it. I prayed I would not become like him. The second thing I remember is a word we
used: "beauty." There were no girls present, so we weren't referring to them. There were no Monets or
Rembrandts around either. We were talking about the pure, unadulterated beauty of mathematics itself.
And I remember thinking, I'll be damned if I'm ever so lost as to think of math as beautiful.
Fourteen years later, I am wonderfully, happily Lost lost in a surreal world of the imagination, a world
not merely of numbers but of shapes, of structure, of order. I even laugh at math jokes. But unfortunately,
when people ask me what I do, I don't know what to say. "I study compact disconnected topological
spaces." No, that wouldn't do. When a physicist talks, at least, about atoms and stars, his audience will
nod meaningfully. An artist can show us her canvas; an economist, money and markets. We
mathematicians have nothing to show. That's why the new movies about math hold such promise. They're
opportunities for others to tell our stories better than we could hope to.
"A Beautiful Mind," starring Russell Crowe, is the latest film to make this daring attempt. It's the true
story of John Nash, the man who set the mathematical world ablaze at twenty-one, but went mad at age
thirty; a genius who believed he could speak with extraterrestrials and who still won the Nobel Prize (in
economics there is no prize for mathematics). Nash, a diffident, socially awkward boy from West
Virginia, dreamt up the idea that would make him famous when he was an undergraduate at Carnegie
Institute. He had only ever taken one economics course. Later, at Princeton, he produced a twenty-seven
page thesis which laid the foundations for the Theory of Games. His theory showed how the rules we use
to play poker can be applied to everything, from Cold War politics, to evolutionary biology, to economics.

Nash's insight was to say that, whenever two parties have differing interests, they're like "players" in a
"non-cooperative game." The merits or demerits of their strategies for winning the game can be
numerically calculated and compared until one finds the "Nash equilibrium," the best strategy for both
players. (The Americans and the Soviets both hired mathematicians during the Cold War to keep it from
turning hot.) But a genius (it's been said) is someone who has two good ideas. Nash, who dazzled his
contemporaries with his quickness, went on to make seminal contributions to several "pure" fields, areas
of mathematics with no current or future applicability to the real world. Until his own world fell apart.
Nash is the universal archetype of the mathematician: an erratic wunderkind on the verge of great
discoveries, or madness. We see him (and occasionally her) in acclaimed films like "Good Will Hunting,"
"Pi," and "Enigma," in award-winning plays like "Proof" and "Arcadia," even in the sci-fi thriller "Jurassic
Park." But why are we seeing more math on film? Because our lives are increasingly governed by numbers
PIN numbers, credit card numbers, social security numbers. All of this information is kept safe thanks
to advances in cryptography that is, thanks to mathematics. And just as the threats of the nuclear age
thrust physics into the popular consciousness, the importance of information and the importance of
protecting it have done the same for math. If a mathematician were to prove a theorem called "P=NP"
tomorrow, the world's banking systems might very well collapse, and our nation's military secrets would
be laid bare. (Safe encryption depends on the fact that it's hard to factor big numbers, numbers with 200
digits or more; "P=NP" would imply that there's a way to factor numbers and hence crack codes
quickly.) Mathematics is what keeps us safe.
While it is gratifying to see Hollywood hunks like Crowe playing Mathematicians a sort of "Gladiator"
meets "Calculator" the beauty of math is too wild to be captured on camera. The real action takes place
in the caverns of the mind, and the enterprise of mathematics cannot be reduced, for public consumption,
to the formula "boy meets girl." Make no mistake, the romance is there the Hungarian mathematician
Paul Erdos said he preferred mathematics to sex, and the Indian genius Ramanujan regarded numbers
among his best friends but it is a people-less passion. Like Saint Paul, we mathematicians do not care so
much for this world as we do for a world invisible, a world in which we however ordinary our lives,
however failed our relationships with other human beings are knights-errant on a quest for that elusive
beauty, Truth. Ironically, "A Beautiful Mind," by focusing on that which can be easily filmed, love affairs
and dementia, fails to capture the beauty of math itself, which is spiritual. It betrays the prize-winning
book of the same name on which it is based. And "A Beautiful Mind" is a terrible thing to waste.

Dr. Jonathan David Farley is a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar at Oxford University

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