Thursday, May 14, 2009

466 - Play It Again #13 - A Beautiful Mind

Ramin Honary is the only person who submitted two entries for Play It Again. He's good like that, the sort of guy you can count on not only to help, but to throw in a little extra. He recently got a master's in computer science from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and has already slipped into a job that will pay more to start than I'll likely make at any point, even considering inflation. He is a proud skeptic and loves anime, though he's polite enough not to bore me with his knowledge of it.

His last entry was on Schindler's List. His next one is on "A Beautiful Mind," Ron Howard's 2001 biopic of a schizophrenic math genius.

"A Beautiful Mind" is Ron Howard best work. It is a film which, after every time I watch it, I feel a bit differently about it, but I always find it uplifting. I particularly love mathematics, and that was initially what made me love this film. I also have a fascination with the concept of the mind and its ephemeral nature, which is the very detail about which the conflict in this story is built.

We begin the story in graduate school at Princeton where a young John Nash (Russel Crowe)is infinitely confident and optimistic of his abilities to make a brilliant, world-changing discovery. He is well aware of the fact that he does not get along well with people, and like most mathematicians I know, this weakness does not bother him in the least. This character is similar to myself in many ways. I can really relate to that confidence and optimism as I had the same feeling as I entered graduate school, and still have a bit of that optimism in me to this very day.

Unfortunately, Nash has a very serious mental illness. Apparently this illness allows him to see the solutions to his equations, but also makes him a danger to himself and his family. The story is similar to one of a star athlete who looses his legs in an accident, and is inspired by his loved ones to overcome his handicap and triumph in the end. But this story is about an intellectual rather than an athlete which makes it especially appealing to me.

The story is based on the best-selling book by Sylvia Nasar, and is based on the true story of John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who discovered what game theorists now call the "Nash Equilibrium." Of course, the story is highly dramatized, with many details invented to make the film more interesting. The way Nash has a eureka moment when admiring a beautiful woman at a bar, the way Nash's adviser tells him his work is a break through in economic theory, the wall of numbers at the Pentagon that contain an encrypted Soviet communique, the pen ceremony at Princeton, the speech Nash made upon receiving the Nobel Prize, all of these details are completely untrue and are typical of how Hollywood caters to our imagination.

Yet these corny dramatizations still appeal to me. I know on an intellectual level that it is only a gimmick I am watching, but I allow myself be swept away by because I believe the main character to be so similar to myself. As I watch, I think that maybe someday I really can discover that Nobel Prize winning equation. In the movie, as Nash thinks about the problem he is trying to solve, he sees the numbers light up and move away from the background upon which they are written, as though the answer is literally jumping out at him. I think about this detail more than any other because of that childish part of me who wishes the drama to be true. - Ramin Honary

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