When mathematician John Nash received a Nobel Prize for economics in 1994, there was a certain tragedy to the award. He hadn’t published a scientific paper or held an academic post in nearly 40 years, according to a New York Times article from that year.
Nash died Saturday with his wife, Alicia, following a taxi accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. He will likely be best remembered from Sylvia Nasar’s bestselling 1998 biography titled “A Beautiful Mind” and the 2001 Academy Award best picture winning film of the same name, both of which documented a battle with paranoid schizophrenia that kept Nash out of academia for decades.
“For the better part of 20 years, his once supremely rational mind was beset by delusions and hallucinations,” The Washington Post notes in their obituary of Nash. “By the time Dr. Nash emerged from his disturbed state, his ideas had influenced economics, foreign affairs, politics, biology — virtually every sphere of life fuelled by competition.”
When he won the Nobel, Nasar reported in The Times in 1994, Nash “was being honored for a slender 27-page Ph.D. thesis written almost half a century ago at the tender age of 21.” Before the award was announced, many scholars assumed he was dead.
Written while a graduate student at Princeton University, Nash’s thesis would spawn what became known as the “Nash equilibrium,” a central tenet of game theory. As a student and later a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nash became known for approaching problems in a way no one else could.
“His graduate professor, R.J. Duffin, recalls Nash as a tall, slightly awkward student who came to him one day and described a problem he thought he had solved. Duffin realised with some astonishment that Nash, without knowing it, had independently proved Brouwer’s famed theorem,” Nasar wrote in 1994. “The professor’s letter of recommendation for Nash had just one line: ‘This man is a genius.'”
In many cases, these ideas seemed to appear out of thin air.
“Nash was described as having insights before he could hammer out the proofs of their accuracy, the ideas coming to him more like revelations than like scholarly findings,” according to The Washington Post.
Nash was aware of his unusual process, even as his illness got worse and he began to display irrational behaviour, such as believing he was communicating with aliens. In her biography, Nasar describes a meeting between Nash and a former colleague who came to visit him at a mental institution.
“How could you, a mathematician devoted to reason and logical proof … believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages?” a visitor asked, according to Nasar.
“Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did,” Nash reportedly replied. “So I took them seriously.”
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