My Answer to John Nash

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Excuse me, I’m just figuring out what to do with my Nobel Prize money. Allow me to back up just a bit:


    A couple of months ago, you may recall, I bought a didgeridoo. A didgeridoo is a long wooden tube that is played by Australian Aboriginals. I returned home full of high anticipation, only to be totally let down by the fact that I could not master it in five minutes. In fact, it took me a good three weeks to produce a convincing and sustained sound.


    This got me thinking. In a previous blog, I reasoned that the didgeridoo never should have been invented. Consider: You encounter a piece of hollowed-out log in a rainforest somewhere. Hmm. Might make a good telescope. Nope – glass hasn’t been invented yet. A periscope, then. Scratch that – you need a submarine to attach it to.

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    Okay, how about tooting into it? It turns out hollow logs aren’t like other wind instruments. If you try attacking it like a trumpet or a trombone, the best sound you’ll get is some “Blazing Saddles” beans scene noises.


    So a sane individual should have given up after five minutes. The only reason I kept going was because I had heard other didge players. I knew you could get these things to rock. But First Didge Guy, what did he or she have to go on? A jungle gorilla orchestra? Keep in mind that the Wright Brothers saw birds in flight. They knew flight was possible.


    Innovation is based on the idea are willing to expend time and effort on initial failure for the long-term reward of possible success. What keeps you going is either the accomplishments of those who have blazed a trail before you, or something you can observe in nature.


    So here I am, out in the back yard, soaking up the California sun, contemplating six feet of didgeridoo. If this reminds you of John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” you’re not far off. Not to knock his games theory, but John Nash required numbers and equations. Me, I rest my case on the elegance of my logic.


    The one thing John Nash and I have in common is overlapping psychiatric illnesses. Last week, I had the opportunity at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting to listen to both John Nash talk about his recovery and an expert expound on the neural basis of creativity. At the APA, Nancy Andreasen MD of the University of Iowa pointed out that Newton was a wild and crazy guy who had a psychotic break at age forty, that Albert Einstein was an eccentric who had a son with schizophrenia, and that James Watson was a bit of a loose cannon who also had a son with schizophrenia.


    Thus, the three most important discoveries of the modern scientific era, Dr Andreasen said, had something to do with schizophrenia. What are the odds of that?


    You don’t necessarily have to have schizophrenia. A mere suggestion of schizophrenia will do just fine. So will bipolar. Just enough to loosen up the micro-components of one’s thoughts and put them back together in a startlingly original whole. From gook to gobbledygook to E=MC2.

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    So here I am thinking: Australia isn’t the only place with hollowed-out logs. They exist in ample supply all over the world, from the South American rain forest to the frozen Siberian tundra. Why didn’t any of these societies come up with their own version of the didgeridoo?


    Because they gave up, that’s why! They weren’t crazy. Yes, they were curious enough to try an experimental toot, but there were walruses to hunt, berries to gather. Thus, all over the interconnected world, spanning thousands of years, we had hollowed-out logs by the gazillions and not one didge.


    Now we change locales to Australia, so totally isolated that innovations could neither get in nor get out. Thus, in 40,000 years of settlement, Aborigine society failed to produce a single clay pot. But here is First Didge Guy, the odd one out in the tribe. Everyone else just leaves him alone, letting him make “Blazing Saddle” noises into his log. One day, he puts the thing to his lips and …


    … the rest is history, or, to be more precise, pre-history.


    So here I am in southern California, cooking up a storm on a locally-grown desert stalk. I am honoring a timeless tradition recognized by the rest of the world as a high cultural achievement. And I’m thinking: Someone would have invented the airplane if the Wright Brothers hadn’t, someone would have come up with E=MC2.


    But the didgeridoo? There was no inevitability to this breakthrough. That is my answer to John Nash’s games theory. 


    I hope I don’t have to share my Nobel Prize money with anyone.


Published On: May 31, 2007