Remembering John Nash, mathematician who unlocked game theory for economics

The Wire
May 25, 2015

The economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Solow once said, “It wasn’t until Nash that game theory came alive for economists.” He was speaking of the work of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a mathematician whose 27-page PhD thesis from 1949 transformed a chapter in mathematics from a novel idea to a powerful tool in economics, business and political science.

At the time, Nash was only 21, his age a telltale mark of genius that had accompanied and would accompany him for the rest of his life.

That life was brought to a tragic close on May 23 when his wife Alicia Nash and he were killed in a car-accident at the New Jersey Turnpike. He was 86 and she was 82; they are survived by two children.

Alicia (née Larde) met Nash when she took an advanced calculus class from him at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1950s. He had received his PhD in 1950 from Princeton University, spent some time as an instructor there and as a consultant at the Rand Corporation, and had moved to MIT in 1951 determined to take on the biggest problems in mathematics.

Between then and 1959, Nash made a name for himself as possibly one of the greatest mathematicians since Carl Friedrich Gauss. He solved what was until then believed to be an unsolvable problem in geometry dating from the 19th century. He worked on a cryptography machine he’d invented while at Rand and tried to get the NSA to use it. He worked with the Canadian-American mathematician Louis Nirenberg to develop non-linear partial differential equations (in recognition, the duo was awarded the coveted Abel Prize in 2015).

He made significant advances in the field of number theory and analysis that – in the eyes of other mathematicians – easily overshadowed his work from the previous decade. After Nash was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1994 for transforming the field of game theory, the joke was that he’d won the prize for his most trivial work.

In 1957, Nash took a break from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, during which he married Alicia. In 1958, she became pregnant with John Charles Martin Nash. Then, in 1959, misfortune struck when Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The illness would transform him, his work and the community of his peers in the next 20 years far beyond putting a dent in his professional career – even as it exposed the superhuman commitments of those who stood by him.

This group included his family, his friends at Princeton and MIT, and the Princeton community at large, even as Nash was as good as dead for the world outside.

His colleagues were no longer able to understand his work. He stopped publishing papers after 1958. He was committed to psychiatric hospitals many times but treatment didn’t help. Psychoanalysis was still in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s – while it’s been discredited now, its unsurprising inability to get through to Nash ground at people’s hopes. In these trying times, Alicia Nash became a great source of support.

Although the couple had divorced in 1963, he continued to write her strange letters – while roaming around Europe, while absconding from Princeton to Roanoke (West Virginia), while convinced that the American government was spying on him.

She later let him live in her house along with their son, paying the bills by working as a computer programmer. Many believe that his eventual remission – in the 1980s – had been the work of Alicia. She had firmly believed that he would feel better if he could live in a quiet, friendly environment, occasionally bumping into old friends, walking familiar walkways in peace. Princeton afforded him just these things.

The remission was considered miraculous because it was wholly unexpected. The intensity of Nash’s affliction was exacerbated by the genius tag, by how much of Nash’s brilliance the world was being deprived of. And the deprivation in turn served to intensify the sensation of loss, drawing out each day that he was unable to make sense when he spoke, when he worked. John Moore, a mathematician and friend of the Nashes, thought they could have been his most productive years.

After journalist Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind, and then an Academy-Award-winning movie based on it, his story became a part of popular culture – but the man himself withdrew from society. Ron Howard, who directed the movie, mentions in a 2002 interview that Nash couldn’t remember large chunks of his life from the 1970s.

While mood disorders like depression strike far more people – and are these days almost commonplace – schizophrenia is more ruthless and debilitating. Even as scientists think it has a firm neurological basis, a perfect cure is yet to be invented because schizophrenia damages a victim’s mind as much as her/his ability to process social stimuli.

In Nash’s case, his family and friends among the professors of Princeton and MIT protected him from succumbing to his own demons – the voices in his head, the ebb of reason, the tendency to isolate himself, that are altogether often the first step toward suicide in people less cared for. Moreover, Nash’s own work played a role in his illness. He was convinced for a time that a new global government was on the horizon, a probable outcome in game theory that his work had made possible, and tried to give up his American citizenship. As a result, his re-emergence from the two decades of mental torture were as much about escaping the vile grip of irrationality and paranoia as much as regaining a sense of certainty in the face of his mathematics’ enchanting possibilities.

A Beautiful Mind closes with Nash’s peers at Princeton learning of his being awarded the Nobel in 1994, and walking up to his table to congratulate him. On screen, Russell Crowe smiles the smile of a simple man, a certain man, revealing nothing of the once-brazen virtuosity that had him dashing into classrooms at Princeton just to scribble equations on the boards, dismissing his colleagues’ work, rearing to have a go at the next big thing in science. By then, that brilliance lay firmly trapped within John Nash’s beautiful but unsettled mind. With his death, and that of Alicia, that mind will now always be known and remembered by the brilliant body of work it produced.