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May 11, 2012 / JamieAlexandraGraves

BiŸogŸraŸphy…

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BiŸogŸraŸphy

n. a written account of another person’s life: John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind” a biography by Sylvia Nasar.

 Biographies are a unique and personal way to connect with extraordinary people. Often, you will be surprised to find that the most successful people of all time experienced similar struggles just like us. Einstein was divorced; Lincoln suffered from depression.

It is not only enlightening but also inspiring to know that such icons have walked down the same paths as us.

But what exactly is biographical writing?

Biographical writing is a specific form of writing that expresses the life of another individual using a myriad of techniques. Biographies can concentrate on forming personal histories, and analyse and explain social, historical, and/or political influences on an individual’s life. It can highlight an individual’s strengths, flaws, triumphs or defeats and situate them into a historical or social context. Biographies have the complete freedom to take a sympathetic or an unsympathetic point of view of an individual, or a subjective or objective view.

A biography could simply be the chronological account of an individual’s life or a deeply investigative statement explaining one’s actions or choices, motivations or flaws in a social or even psychoanalytical context.

In short, a biography is a unique and highly personal expression and exhibition of individual life.

The biography “A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar exquisitely depicts the life and times of John Nash. Nash was a mathematical genius by the age of thirty who suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia for the most part of his life. In 1994 he went on to receive a Nobel Prize for his work in game theory. 

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Nasar has written the biography of John Nash in such a way that really helps the reader relate to scientific (in this case mathematical) concepts while simultaneously retaining the nature of humanity of a humbled man suffering a severe mental illness through the use of numerous writing conventions.

Some common writing techniques used in biographies are:

  • Use of anecdotes
  • Humour
  • Use of personal, human emotion
  • Story-telling format
  • Use of facts
  • Use of characterisation

Nasar has employed many of these techniques effectively throughout the biography. Examples from the text include the use of anecdotes:

“Returning WWII veterans had flooded the job market and enrolments were falling because of the draft. In 2 years, there would be another crop of brilliant youngsters, clamouring for the handful of instructorships. His game theory thesis had been greeted with a mix of indifference and derision by the pure mathematicians, so his only hope of a good offer, he felt, was to finish his paper on algebraic manifolds.” 

This extract deconstructs Nash’s desperation and anxiety towards avoiding drafting into the war and highlights the upmost value that Nash placed upon mathematics and the degree to which mathematics was integrated into his life.

The portrayal of human emotion is a very powerful writing technique used to elicit emotions in the reader such that they can share and understand the characters experiences. A perfect example from “A Beautiful Mind” utilizes this writing technique strongly:

“The urgency of Nash’s efforts to avoid the draft suggests deeper fears than those related to career ambitions or personal convenience. His was a personality for which regimentation, loss of autonomy, and close contact with strangers were not merely unpleasant, but highly threatening.”

This reflects insights into Nash’s psyche in a manner that affords the reader an opportunity to better understand the mechanics of his mind.

The story-telling format implemented in “A Beautiful Mind” is used as a means to engage the interests of the reader and make the presentation of scientific (mathematical) information much more accessible and relatable to the audience.

It is the method of separating the maths from the man that makes biographies such a unique form of science communication. Biographies achieve this through the employment of a myriad of writing techniques that use human emotion to convey scientific detail thus establishing a unique relationship between the two.

References

  • Nasar, S. (1998). A Beautiful Mind: Simon and Schuster.

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8 Comments

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  1. alistairsisson / May 12 2012 8:24 am

    I think biography is especially important in science, as many people are put off by the theoretical abstractions of science (and maths) and fail to see the human motivations behind these things. Like many of the topics that have been discussed in these blogs, biographical writing is probably a good for inspiring further interest is a scientific concept. I know some biographies go even further to explain the principles or theories developed by the subject of the biography, but I’m not sure how effective that would be; was this attempted at all in the book?

    Biographies are also good at dispelling myths about scientists being boring or dull. Most of the time its the opposite, and this is a perfect example. Well done; an interesting post on an interesting topic.

    • JamieAlexandraGraves / May 16 2012 3:59 pm

      Hi Alistair,
      I think biographies would be a great way to explain scientific principles and theories through the techniques that they use which makes them so engaging to the reader (use of story format, humour etc) and even more so if the subject who the biography was based on was a famous and interesting character.
      However, this was not attempted in this biography. “A Beautiful Mind” was more focused on the the subject, John Nash, and his struggle with his chronic condition of paranoid schizophrenia, and then how he overcame this to go on and win a Nobel Prize for his work in mathematics. But it does not actually focus on explaining the principles of his work in game theory.
      However this is an interesting idea and I am sure is attempted in other biographies!
      Thanks for the post!

  2. annagardiner / May 14 2012 2:43 am

    You’ve described a bibliography so beautifully, your opening sentence couldn’t sum it up better. Also I never knew Einstein was divorced, so that was cool.
    I enjoyed reading this post, I can only say that maybe you could have chosen a more interesting example of an anecdote from the text, it just didn’t feel that anecdotal to me.
    I love your writing though, great post.

  3. priscillalyf / May 14 2012 2:01 pm

    Great summary of what a biography is.

    When reading a biography you do discover a lot more about that person that you probably would not have known otherwise. In saying that reading a biography can have its advantages and disadvantages. Most people do not liking reading biographies because they find it too boring because of the way it is written. It could be chronological, what he/she did in each year with no added humour, anecdotes or personal human emotions. Some people enjoy reading biographies because they want to know more about a certain person especially if that person is well known, people tend to read more.

    In science, biographies give you an insight of the person who came up or invented the scientific concept. Biographies give you a chance to look at the specific parts of the scientific concept, how that person came up with that concept. As what alistairsisson said, they help to dispel myths about the scientist, because biographies are a good way to learn about the scientist directly instead of hearing by word of mouth how the scientist lived or established the concept.

    I find that biographies with some humour, use of personal and human emotions, storytelling and using anecdotes are the most interesting. They engage the reader and make the reader want to know more about the person. I also find these types of biographies more memorable as well, because you remember the story telling part or the joke that was made in the book rather than a lot of facts.

  4. michaelpetersen1 / May 17 2012 4:09 am

    I enjoyed this post and agree with your comments. I also think target audience and the style that a biography is written in is important. While this didn’t have too much jargon i think a biography aimed at mathmeticians probably would have written more on his achievements as a mathmetician and less on his mental illness. This could make the biography more scientific, but you might risk alienating others from reading it and not communicate any science at all.

    • JamieAlexandraGraves / May 17 2012 11:24 am

      Hi Michael,

      Yes I agree! Biographies would make a great way to convey information and explain scientific work, however there must be a careful balance between how much the author focuses on the science and how much they focus on the story.
      You definitely do run a very high risk of putting the reader off if the work is too science-based and jargon-heavy. However at the same time if you make the entire story about the life of the subject, then you will perhaps end up writing a great book, yet failing to instil in the reader any scientific information at all!

      Great point!

  5. rhiandyer / May 18 2012 8:39 am

    A lot of popular science books that I enjoyed have biographies that I feel have really made the books more interesting. Other people here have already commented about dispelling myths of the mundane nature of science and scientists but there are many more things that we also get an insight into. Stories can also include biographies of people affected by scientific discoveries (patients cured etc), the history of scientific discoveries (through series of biographies) and the nature of the scientific industry (overcoming scientific dogma). It all makes it pretty engaging and hopefully you can squeeze a few scientific concepts in there too.

  6. Paran23 / May 18 2012 2:42 pm

    Yes, another interesting science writing I always enjoy. The background, period, science, facts and the story all in a mixed but enjoyable form is biography. I could not understand all probably due to my little maths knowledge or only a chapter in the book. However, the writing was enjoyable. Jamie, you have analysed well for the scientific writing aspect with the examples. I could not understand Russel Crowe in the picture. Overall, well done.

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