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  1. A Beautiful Movie?

2. Math mysteries maintained

3. Science movies on the move

4. Should we care?



Matt Damon, a street kid with a gift for math, gets some counseling from Robin Williams, in Good Will Hunting.
Courtesy Miramax Films



  A muscular mathematician
Russell Crowe could certainly snag an Oscar for his convincing portrayal of John Nash, a schizophrenic mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. But what does the film tell us of math -- and the people who do math?

Quite a little, and quite a lot, according to Terry Millar, a mathematician and associate dean at University of Wisconsin-Madison who saw the movie at our request. "My personal impression was that it did not reveal much about math, but did say a great deal about mental illness." Top-flight mathematicians, he says, "are very odd ducks." Some have dropped out of society or become notorious for sleeping in the classroom. In that respect, Nash was emblematic of the field, Millar says.

Damon looks to his right, while, from behind, a concerned Robin Williams 
looks like he's starting to speak. George Cantor, who developed a theoretical unification of mathematics, he says, "was treated pretty much as a nut by the math community." Like Nash, Cantor was vindicated in the end, Millar adds. "Now the first few pages of any math text will be devoted to set theory assumptions" -- which Cantor pioneered.

A Beautiful Mind vividly showed Nash's auditory and visual hallucinations. Beyond portraying mental illness, Millar saw the hallucinations as insights into how some mathematicians get with ideas. "These people tend to be very rational in certain contexts, but how they end up doing what they do is not clear. The movie gave you some purchase on what that might be." Crowe-Nash himself said he believed the hallucinations because they seemed to come from the same source as his mathematical insights.

The Nobel-winning mathematician said both hallucinations and mathematical insights had one source.

Some zero-sum game!
While offering psychological insights, Millar says A Beautiful Mind went "a little light on the math." Forgive the matho-phobic Why Files nerds for a math moment. Exactly how did Nash score the 1994 Nobel Prize for Economics?

Nash developed a theory to describe economic behavior. In the early 1950s, when Nash entered graduate school, two mathematicians had already described zero-sum games with two players. (In a zero-sum game, if one player wins, the other loses an equal amount; total wealth does not change.)

mathematical equation jumbled up But economic situations can have dozens or even hundreds of players. And the zero-sum condition is unrealistic: by definition, economic growth is an increase in total wealth.

Nash's innovation was in describing games with several players without the zero-sum restriction. In other words, in a game with six players, three could win $5 each, and the other three could come out even.

Eventually, his math described a "Nash equilibrium," a kind of economic paradise where, as the Nobel folks said, "all of the players' expectations are fulfilled and their chosen strategies are optimal."

It may sound pretty common-sense, but Nash's insight overturned a bedrock hunk of the economic theory of Adam Smith, founder of the dismal science. Smith argued that greed serves the common good -- that individual actors, by seeking their individual benefit, help society as a whole.

Nash held that this fundamental tenet of capitalism, however, does not fully describe reality, and that individuals could only maximize their own benefit by thinking about the group.

A large, pyramidal building seen from the air.

Dustin Hoffman played a medical detective in Outbreak, a 1995 thriller with too much action and too little science. This federal laboratory starred as, well, a federal laboratory.
Department of Energy.

You could do the math
In the movie, Crowe (a hunkily muscular mathematician) propounded his theory in a second bar-room pickup scene. Nash and his fellow math mavens -- who apparently devoted all their off-hours to looking for women -- were wowed by a stunning blonde (the kind who, in reality, would never enter a bar near Princeton or any other all-male college).

glowing 3-D glasses (illustration) At any rate, since Blondie was surrounded in the dating arena by four lesser women, the odds favored the four guys (even if they were mathematicians). But Nash saw that if all four men did the Adam Smith thing and wooed the knockout, at least three fellas would lose -- big. They would be spurned by Blondie. And, having offended the other women, they would be fated to spend the evening -- horrors -- talking math with their buddies.

A smarter strategy, Nash-Crowe proposed, would be to ignore Blondie and shower attention on her mortal friends. If each man obeyed Adam Smith, Nash explained, and sought his maximum advantage, most would lose. By thinking about the overall benefits, they would do better.

They would reach a Nash equilibrium, and Blondie would be the lonely one, not they.

illustration of brain with words below: 'A beautiful brain?'Whitewash?
Nash himself, of course, is shown reaching a different, and far more miserable state of equilibrium: paranoid schizophrenia. Still, even as we wondered what was so "beautiful" about his mind in the first place, the movie was apparently a whitewash. It omitted key details that would be inconvenient to the tearjerker plot.

The New York Times said A Beautiful Mind "can -- indeed, should -- be intellectually rejected, but you can't quite banish it from your mind" (see "From Math..." in the bibliography).

Indeed, this is such a convincing whitewash that you may not want to expose it to the cold light of reality. Why? Because while Nash was a basket case, he was surrounded by do-gooders who smoothed the rough path of his life -- indeed -- make his survival possible.

Ironically, the do-gooders ignored economic calculations in favor of those emotional ones. But enough of the dismal science.

How does Beautiful Mind compare with other recent science-flicks?



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