Commentary: Just Another Hollywood Mad Scientist

By Catherine Arnst

It's not easy to make science sexy. Just ask educators around the nation, whose students' science scores rank way down in international comparisons. Still, the public does have a hankering for some things scientific: Physicist Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time sold millions of copies, and his latest tome, The Universe in a Nutshell, has been a best-seller since November.

Now, Hollywood is betting that even more people will flock to a big-budget movie with a scientific background--which is why Oscar winner Russell Crowe is emoting at a cineplex near you as Nobel prize-winning mathematician John F. Nash Jr.

Crowe's new movie, A Beautiful Mind, follows on the heels of three plays on Broadway in the past year with scientists as their lead characters--all of them hits. Copenhagen, a British import that ran for 11 months, is a gripping exploration of a real-life 1941 meeting between Nobel physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Both worked on atomic-bomb programs, one for the U.S. and one for the Nazis. The play is laden with challenging concepts--not least, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle--yet the drama is spell-binding even for viewers who never studied physics. Then there's Proof, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and continues to play to packed houses. It features a fictional mathematician based on John Nash. And QED, which will return to Broadway on Feb. 17 after a successful fall run, stars Alan Alda as iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman, another architect of America's A-bomb.

The good news is that all this creative activity proves that science can be entertaining and popular. The bad news? The two productions that are reaching the largest audiences--A Beautiful Mind and Proof--insinuate that scientific genius goes hand-in-hand with insanity. Granted, the Mad Scientist has long been a feature of science fiction and horror flicks, but plays like Copenhagen and QED prove that science can draw an audience without resorting to such clichés.

As for Nash, both the play and the movie get some of his story right. A brilliant mathematician in the 1950s, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for some 30 years. He had only recently recovered his sanity when he was awarded the 1994 Nobel prize in economics for his trailblazing work in game theory--completed when he was in his 20s. His tale was chronicled in a superbly researched 1998 biography by journalist Sylvia Nasar, also called A Beautiful Mind. But this is not the story that's on the silver screen. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman take pains to note that their movie was "inspired by" Nasar's book, not based on it.

Indeed, Nash's story is barely recognizable in the movie version. He is still brilliant, and he still wins the Nobel. But the movie, besides throwing in lots of spy-thriller MacGuffins, implies that Nash was already gripped by schizophrenia when he arrived at Princeton University as a graduate student in 1948. Although schizophrenia can take root years before it is diagnosed, Nash, though somewhat eccentric, exhibited no hallmarks of the disease until he was 30 and already well established as a leader in his field.

Nasar, for one, approves of Hollywood's version: "I think that if they tried to do a straight biopic, it would have been deadly." She points out that Nash's math colleagues in the movie were depicted as both brilliant and sane. True, but the take-away message seems to be that Nash's greater brilliance was inextricably linked to his madness.

O.K., O.K., it's Hollywood. But the play QED shows that a Nobel genius can be both entertaining and sane. Of course, it would be hard to make Richard Feynman boring. The charismatic physicist wrote best-sellers himself and was celebrated for his wit and even his drumming (a favorite hobby) almost as much as for his work in reformulating the abstruse theories known as quantum electrodynamics (the QED of the title).

Film and TV star Alan Alda commissioned QED because of his interest in Feynman and his own long-held love of science. "I think science is endlessly fascinating," he says, because it's about the struggle to understand. "When you think about it, every play by Shakespeare is about people trying to figure things out." Essentially a long monologue, QED illustrates well Feynman's famous sense of humor--and his beautiful mind. Like Copenhagen, it engages despite being loaded with ideas that many may find daunting.

A Beautiful Mind does win points for coming up with an ingenious fiction to illustrate game theory. In the movie, Nash conjures up his revolutionary theory as a way to pick up girls in a bar. Proof that scientists can entertain without being mad.

Senior Writer Arnst covers science from New York.

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