MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
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Although the book A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr. is not fictional, Ron Howard's film (released December 2001) most certainly is. (I say this not as a complaint, but just to justify its inclusion on the list.) That it was fictionalized for the film does not bother me. In fact, I like the inclusion of the fictional "twists" that make the audience share in the character's delusions. However, I am bothered by the fact that the film chooses to present us with the dangerous media stereotype of the eccentric mathematician rather than taking on the more difficult task of trying to convey the real story of John Nash and the role that mental illness has played in his life.

One of the reasons that I have become interested in mathematical fiction is that it actually shapes the opinions of the general public regarding mathematics and mathematicians. For instance, a neighbor mentioned that she thought of me when she saw this film. "Now," she said to me, "I have a better idea of how your mind works." Don't forget that this is a film about a man so crazy that he must be forceably hospitalized and almost drowns his own baby! Unfortunately, as these comments make perfectly clear, the conclusion that many viewers reach after watching this movie is that anyone who is good at doing math must be completely crazy. Although some of the scenes in the film were well done, I cannot forgive it for reinforcing this dangerous stereotype. Moreover, I thought that the lack of subtlety in this film was an insult to the audience. But, those are just my opinions. You can check out the usual film critics for lots of glowing praise for this film. Or, for another viewpoint, read this review by mathematician Dan Rockmore at Dartmouth. And, here are some comments from visitors to this Website:

"This film took liberties with the facts, but I don't think it is hyperbole to deem it an inspirational masterpiece. I believe its name will be mentioned frequently at the Academy Awards." (Contributed by Ron Miller)

"The movie is primarily concerned with Nash's descent into madness and partial recovery, not his mathematics. As is typical of this gendre of movie, its difficult to tell what is biographical fact vs Hollywood fiction. I suspect the movie underplays his mathematical genius, and over-emphasizes the typical stereotypical behavior of intellectuals prevalent in the movies. As a study of madness the movie succeeds, one can relate to the confusion of reality and fantasy, so convincing its scary. I suppose one must read the book "A Beautiful Mind" to clear up the facts." (Contributed by David Bouras)

One anonymous visitor says: "I've read the book. The movie was barely factual, however, entertaining and not just a sappy flick." (I think the word `just' is terribly important in that comment!)

Contributed by kathi

I saw the movie, then read the book. I understand your comments that it gives all mathematicians a bad name. That can be said for every profession, nurses are depicted as Nurse Ratchett, sexy handmaidens, 2nd rate because they did not go to med school, wearing a cap-- in my 15 year nursing career I was never even close to any of those depictions.

As to the movie, I think it did depict mental illness well & discerning viewers (myself) understood it was not the math genius being shown. The book was definitely more factually (tons of footnotes) and more history noted.

This movie lead me to learn more about John Nash the person and the book was a great lesson about the history of college math, the gov. think tanks and the role of math in world events.

Interesting site, stumbled upon it when looking at info about the Da Vinci Code.

Contributed by Nick Hare

(These comments apply to the film - I haven't read the book.) You'd think they'd have covered the concept of Nash Equilibriuma a little more accurately, since it's the concept that bears his name. In the film, the 'inspiration' for his discovering it occurs when Nash and three pals are drinking in a bar. Four women enter, led by a blonde who is clearly the pick of the bunch. Nash reasons that if they all go for the blonde, at most one of them will end up with her, and they won't then stand a chance with the other three. But if they divide the women amongst themselves first, they all have a chance of ending up with one.

There are two problems with this example; one technical, one presentational. The technical one is that (assuming the 'rules' are as described) there are of course multiple Nash equilbria here (even disregarding mixed strategies) where each is assigned a different girl. Each of them has a slightly different payoff for each player, depending on who is assigned the blonde. The problem is that the concept doesn't tell you WHICH Equilibrium will end up being played - so the whole blonde problem hasn't actually been solved. They could agree among themselves to co-ordinate in a certain way, but this isn't shown in the film, and is in fact a further game theory problem of its own, since they would each like to be the one with the blonde. It's disappointing a better example wasn't used.

The presentational problem is that film implies Nash Equilibrium is just a way of co-operating in a socially useful manner, when in fact it's almost the opposite (a set of individual best responses). There's no necessary reason why co-operation is the outcome in this situation. The blonde could have been so attractive it would have been worth a 25% shot at her rather than a certain go at one of the plainer girls, which would lead to a competitive outcome.

A much better example would be one where there was a DIFFERENCE between the individual and the social optimums. Let's say there was one girl being hit on by two men. Neither wants to be the one to leave the group and buy the drinks, because he'd lose his (50%) chance with her. It's individually best for them both to keep talking to her. But because neither has bought her a drink, she gets fed up and goes home. So what was the best decision for the individual was worse for the group. I'm sure there's any number of better examples which would have explained N.E. more effectively than the misleading one they use in the film.

Contributed by Steve

Having watched the film then the book in that order, I could have been forgiven thinking that there were two different John Nash's being presented here.

If the book is anything closely related to the real John Nash then the film is a complete work of fiction. In fact I recall my very words to my wife on finishing the book. I said "Both film and book have only two things in common and that is that they share a guy called John Nash and that he went to Princeton"

Other than that, the rest is polar. I wonder what JN thought of the film?

That asides, taken separately, the book is a great read and the film is a great watch. So leaving all other issues aside, for good entertainment....indulge yourself to both!

Contributed by Harry Williams

I normally don't like to go to movies. I thought the movie was bad, but it did turn me towards the book, which I did not read as a work of fiction, but a treatise on an exceptional genius. I am well into the book and believe thus far it gives good insight into the culture of elitist universities and the incredible grip that elite universities and think tanks have on our political and intellectual world. I did not like the character depicted in the movie, nor in the book, but did admire Nash's commitment to the use of his mind, whether "beautiful" or not. I am fascinated by the book, and the amount of research that went into it. I don't consider it very important as a literary work of art. In fact, some of the ways of organizing the material and the multiple viewpoints included seemed haphazard. I praise Sylvia Nasar for the labor she put into it, but as a literary artist, she is no Virginia Woolf.

Yes, Harry. Like you, I do not consider the book "A Beautiful Mind" to be a work of fiction. (See the very first sentence of this page above.) However, this is not because I think it was poorly written but rather because it is non-fiction, and even well written non-fiction simply isn't fiction. (It's a tautology, isn't it?) I'm not sure I fully understand what you mean about the "complete grip that elitist universities and think tanks have on our political and intellectual world". I am not unbiased, being a college professor myself, but honestly do not see universities as being particularly elitist...at least no more so than any other institution. They do contain a high concentration of people who are experts in all of the areas of academia, and consequently should have SOME role to play in our political and intellectual world. But, they certainly do not have a monopoly on it. The business (traditional big business as well as the newer biotech and silicon valley sort) and non-academic political communities seem quite capable of competing with the universities in this arena. Moreover, I don't see at all what this has to do with A Beautiful Mind. Perhaps you could write back and elaborate?

Contributed by Tina Chang

I liked the movie a lot.

I really enjoyed the way the patterns of numbers were revealed by having them light up. I thought that was a clever way to describe what might go through someone's mind when they search for patterns.

I found the equations drawn on the glass windows were beautiful. Most people find equations dull or intimidating. It is hard to reveal the beauty of equations to people. By putting the equations on the glass windows and showing Nash's intense expression, I think this aspect of mathematics was well captured.

I liked the scene near the end where Nash is talking to a graduate student and is all inspired and late in the library. I felt that really captured the ideal teacher student relationship. I thought the brilliant repartee at the party with his future wife and looking at the stars was wonderful. It made Nash sexy and mathematical at the same time. Those of us who like mathematics know this feeling but I think the general public rarely sees this.

The casting was excellent.

Contributed by Anonymous

Well, i loved the movie! Especially the equations. Although I'm not much of a math student I did enjoy my high school level community college algebra class--I actually understood what was ging on!

Then i saw this film--WOW--that is so cool how Nash could make an equation out of just about any situation.

What is significant about that is if one can boil down events into equations--see their mathematical relationships--then one can, by solving that equation, solve the event--the problems that need to be solved in any event, situation, problem, etc.!

Actually I was looking for sites that discuss mathematical relationships and their functions.

More information about this work can be found at us.imdb.com.
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to A Beautiful Mind
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Infinity by Patricia Broderick
  2. Prince of Mathematics: Carl Friedrich Gauss by Margaret B.W. Tent
  3. The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki) by Yoko Ogawa
  4. Freud's Megalomania: A Novel by Israel Rosenfield
  5. D'Alembert's Principle: A Novel in Three Panels by Andrew Crumey
  6. Proof by David Auburn (playwright)
  7. Continuums by Robert Carr
  8. Mozart and the Whale by Petter Næss (Director)
  9. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
  10. Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis
Ratings for A Beautiful Mind:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.28/5 (22 votes)
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Literary Quality:
3.67/5 (23 votes)
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Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifGenius, Prodigies, Anti-social Mathematicians, Insanity, Academia, Proving Theorems, Real Mathematicians, Romance,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Mathematical Finance,
MediumFilms,

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Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)