June 13, 1928 – May 23, 2015
When John and Alicia Nash got married a second time in 2001 after divorcing in the 1970s, I asked Nash to kiss the bride again so I could take a picture. He looked up and quipped, “A second take? Just like the movies.”
The 20 years after he won the 1994 Nobel Prize and enjoyed a remarkable remission from schizophrenia were an extraordinary second take for someone whose life seemed to be over at age 30.
Nash *50 was a legend by the time he turned 21. Introduced to Princeton with a one-line letter of recommendation — “This man is a genius.” — the Ph.D. student went on to become one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.
At the pinnacle of a brilliant career, Nash was betrayed by his beautiful mind. As his work became more and more influential, he sank deeper into illness, poverty, and obscurity.
His 26-page doctoral thesis sparked a revolution in economics. Before Nash, economists had no way of thinking systematically about situations involving multiple players whose interests partly overlapped and could either compete or cooperate. He made game theory a practical tool for analyzing strategic behavior whether of corporations, countries, or honeybees.
A Southerner with movie-star looks and a wicked sense of humor, Nash was thought of as a bad boy, but a great one. “He was obnoxious, immature, a brat,” recalled a fellow student. “What redeemed him was a keen, logical, beautiful mind.” As a young academic at MIT, Nash made seminal contributions to several fields of pure mathematics. Each time, he simplified hopelessly complex problems by pursuing strategies that the “experts” dismissed as impossible. A colleague recalled: “Everyone else would climb a peak by looking for a path somewhere on the mountain; Nash would climb another mountain altogether and from a distant peak would shine a searchlight back on the first peak.”
At the pinnacle of a brilliant career, Nash was betrayed by his beautiful mind. For three decades, as his work became more and more influential in fields as disparate as geometry, economics, and biology, Nash sank deeper into illness, poverty, and obscurity, a sad wraithlike figure that generations of students knew only as The Ghost of Fine Hall.
When I met Nash for the first time in 1995, he had recovered from his illness but still had that ghostlike quality. He mumbled, avoided eye contact, wore mismatched clothes. Then something extraordinary happened: He got his life back, including all the ordinary things others take for granted: a driver’s license, a passport, travel, invitations to academic conferences. Once, for a New York Times story, I asked Nash what difference the Nobel Prize money had made. He replied that he now could afford to buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks. “Poor people can’t do that,” he said.
After director Ron Howard screened A Beautiful Mind for Nash, I asked him what he thought of it. He liked the fast pace and the humor, he said, before adding, “And I think Russell Crowe looks a little like me.”
The film made Nash a celebrity. When I tracked down the reclusive Russian genius who had solved the Poincaré Conjecture a few years ago, his first words were, “I didn’t read the book, but I saw the movie with Russell Crowe.” A 9-year-old girl wrote, “You are my roll (sic) model for a lot of things. I think you are the smartest person who ever lived.” A letter from a homeless man who had been an editor at the Times before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia ended: “John Nash’s story gives me hope that one day the world will come back to me, too.”
Recognition is a cure for many ills, but love gave Nash something to come back to: a home, family, a reason to live after the delusions of being what he himself referred to as “a figure of great but secret importance” receded. Alicia was the rock on which he rebuilt his life. Together they experienced the extremes of human existence: genius and madness, obscurity and fame. Together they cared for their disabled son, renewed family ties and friendships, savored what author Joan Didion calls “life’s bright pennies.” The two died in a car accident as they were returning from Norway, where he had received the Abel Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics.
It’s a story for the ages ... tragic, sublime, and, now, suddenly, over.
Sylvia Nasar wrote the book A Beautiful Mind.