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A BEAUTIFUL MATH A BEAUTIFUL MATH
JOHN NASH, GAME THEORY, AND THE MODERN QUEST FOR A CODE OF NATURE

TOM SIEGFRIED

JOSEPH HENRY PRESS

Washington, D.C.

Joseph Henry Press • 500 Fifth Street, NW • Washington, DC 20001 The Joseph Henry Press, an imprint of the National Academies Press, was created with the goal of making books on science, technology, and health more widely available toprofessionals and the public. Joseph Henry was one of the founders of the National Academy of Sciences and a leader in early American science. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this volume are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences or its affiliated institutions. Library of CongressCataloging-in-Publication Data Siegfried, Tom, 1950A beautiful math : John Nash, game theory, and the modern quest for a code of nature / Tom Siegfried. — 1st ed. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-309-10192-1 (hardback) — ISBN 0-309-65928-0 (pdfs) 1. Game theory. I. Title. QA269.S574 2006 519.3—dc22 2006012394

Copyright 2006 by Tom Siegfried. All rights reserved. Printed in the UnitedStates of America.

Preface

Shortly after 9/11, a Russian scientist named Dmitri Gusev proposed an explanation for the origin of the name Al Qaeda. He suggested that the terrorist organization took its name from Isaac Asimov’s famous 1950s science fiction novels known as the Foundation Trilogy. After all, he reasoned, the Arabic word “qaeda” means something like “base” or “foundation.” And thefirst novel in Asimov’s trilogy, Foundation, apparently was titled “al-Qaida” in an Arabic translation. In Asimov’s books, “Foundation” referred to an organization dedicated to salvaging a decaying galactic empire. The empire was hopeless, destined to crumble into chaos, leaving civilization in ruins for 30,000 years. Foreseeing the inevitability of the empire’s demise, one man devised a plan totruncate the coming era of darkness to a mere millennium. His strategy was to establish a “foundation” of scholars who would preserve human knowledge for civilization’s eventual rebirth. At least that’s what he told the empire’s authorities. In fact, Asimov’s hero, a mathematician named Hari Seldon, created a community of scientists devoted to manipulating the future. Seldon actually formed twofoundations—one in a remote but known locale (sort of like Afghanistan), the other in a mystery location referred to only with riddles. Foundation I participated openly in the affairs of the galaxy. Foundation II operated surreptitiously, intervening at key points in history to nudge events along Seldon’s chosen path. Seldon’s plan for controlling human affairs was based on a
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PREFACEmathematical system that he invented called psychohistory. It enabled Seldon to predict political, economic, and social trends; foresee the rise and fall of governments; and anticipate the onset of wars and periods of peace. I don’t think Osama bin Laden is Hari Seldon. But it’s not so far-fetched to believe that the organizers of the real Al Qaeda perceived Western civilization as an empire indecay. Or that they anointed themselves as society’s saviors, hoping to manipulate events in a way that would lead to a new world order more to their liking. So perhaps they adopted some of Hari Seldon’s strategies. (Certainly Osama bin Laden’s occasional taped messages are eerily similar to Seldon’s video appearances from time to time, prepared before his death for delivery decades or evencenturies later.) Of course, any such link to Asimov changes nothing about terrorism. Al Qaeda gains no justification for atrocity from any connection to science fiction. And frankly, the similarities seem rather superficial. Had the terrorists really studied Foundation, they would have noticed Asimov’s assertion that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” But in fact, Asimov’s series did...
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