Brilliant mind was labelled ‘backward’
JOHN FORBES NASH JR Mathematician, Nobel laureate Born: June 13, 1928, Bluefield, West Virginia Died: May 23, 2015, New Jersey
JOHN Nash was a precocious and dashing young man; he had an Ivy League education and seemed destined for a life of stunning success.
He achieved that, winning a Nobel prize in 1994, but not without a struggle with mental illness that would make him a household name even more so than his achievements in mathematics.
Nash was born into a loving family surrounded by close relatives who showered him with affection. Two years later his sister Martha was born. He displayed a lot of interest in books when he was young but little interest in playing with other children. While his sister played the usual childhood games, Nash preferred to play by himself with toy aeroplanes and Matchbox cars.
According to his online biography his mother, a former teacher, encouraged his education and his father, an electrical engineer, gave him science books to read when other parents were probably giving their children colouring books.
Teachers never recognised his genius and labelled him “backward” because of his lack of social skills. Nash had read the classic Men of
Mathematics by E.T. Bell by the time he was in high school. He planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and studied for three years at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh but instead followed his passion for maths.
He then went to Princeton, where he worked on his equilibrium theory and, in 1950, received his doctorate with a dissertation on non-cooperative games. The thesis contained the definition and properties of what would be called the Nash equilibrium.
But it was while teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1959, when his wife Alicia, whom he married in 1957 (pictured with Nash) was pregnant with their son, that schizophrenia began to emerge, a year-long fight that was chronicled in the Academy Awardwinning blockbuster A Beautiful Mind.
“John’s remarkable achievements inspired generations of mathematicians, economists and scientists who were influenced by his brilliant, groundbreaking work in game theory, and the story of his life with Alicia moved millions of readers and moviegoers who marvelled at their courage in the face of daunting challenges,” Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber said.
In an autobiography written for The Nobel Foundation website, Nash said delusions caused him to resign as a faculty member at MIT.
He also spent several months in New Jersey hospitals on an involuntary basis. However, his schizophrenia diminished through the 1970s and 1980s as he “gradually began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking,” he wrote.
Nash held a research post at Brandeis University before eventually returning to Princeton.
Known as brilliant and eccentric, he was associated with Princeton for many years, most recently serving as a senior research mathematician.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his work in game theory, which offered insight into the dynamics of human rivalry. It is considered one of the most influential ideas of the 20th century.
A Beautiful Mind (2001) was based on an unauthorised biography by Sylvia Nasar, who wrote that Nash’s contemporaries found him “immensely strange” and “slightly cold, a bit superior, somewhat secretive”.
Much of his demeanour likely stemmed from mental illness.
A Beautiful Mind won four Academy Awards, including best picture and best director and generated interest in Nash’s life story.
Nash and his wife split in 1963, then resumed living together several years later and remarried in 2001. The couple died together in a car accident in New Jersey.
Russell Crowe, who was nominated for best actor for playing Nash, tweeted that he was “stunned” by news of the couple’s death. “An amazing partnership,” he wrote. “Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”
Jennifer Connelly, who won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Alicia Nash, called the couple “an inspiration,” and the film’s director, Ron Howard, tweeted that “it was an honour telling part of their story”.
Just days before his death, Nash received a prize from the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters in Oslo with New York University mathematician Louis Nirenberg, who called Nash a truly great mathematician and “a kind of genius”.
The Nashes are survived by their son John and Nash’s son (John Stier) from a previous relationship.