Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind is subtitled "The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash". It's a well-written book, fast reading in spite of footnotes and detailed asides. (There's almost no math in it, however --- a disappointment, but understandable.) Coincidentally, on the day I finished it I saw multiple reviews of Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson ("Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life") --- which like Nasar's book reminded me strongly of Marvin Minsky's key theme in Society of Mind many years ago: introspection won't hack it. There are hardware and software levels far below those accessible to conscious thought. Brain chemistry holds some ferocious trump cards against which even the best of wills can't prevail.
But getting back to John Nash: Nasar is a serious biographer who also has a twinkle of good humor that on occasion surfaces to surprise and delight. An example from Chapter 50 ("Reawakening"):
On the afternoon of the Nobel announcement, after the press conference, a small champagne party was in progress in Fine Hall. Nash made a short speech. He was not inclined to give speeches, he said, but had three things to say. First, he hoped that getting the Nobel would improve his credit rating because he really wanted a credit card. Second, he said that one is supposed to say that one is really glad he is sharing the prize, but he wished he had won the whole thing because he really needed the money badly. Third, Nash said that he had won for game theory and that he felt that game theory was like string theory, a subject of great intrinsic intellectual interest that the world wishes to imagine can be of some utility. He said it with enough skepticism in his voice to make it funny.
Steven Johnson's Mind Wide Open is well worth reading; I got my copy from the local library. Johnson aims to find what he calls long-decay ideas about the mind and cognition.
My favorite such long-decay idea is the notion of how our fight-or-flight system can interfere with us at a later time. One example was about September 11th -- Johnson was in NYC at the time -- and how since then, days with cloudless bright blue skies have made him uneasy. (9/11 was such a day.) Here's the part that got me: research suggests that when you get into a dangerous situation, brain makes a low resolution snapshot of everything going on at the time. Everything, because one seemingly unnoticed aspect of the situation may be the key to the danger. And once you have that snapshot in place, your lower brain uses it as a rough filter on events as you go through life; if something matches that snapshot, you'll have a reaction. But here's the tricky part: since that snapshot is so low-resolution, things might match it that shouldn't: for example, the presence of sunny skies. -- PaulHolbrook