John Nash’s Beautiful Life

Matt Schiavenza in The Atlantic:

Lead_960John Nash, a Nobel laureate and mathematical genius whose struggle with mental illness was documented in the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind, was killed in a car accident on Saturday. He was 86. The accident, which occurred when the taxi Nash was traveling in collided with another car on the New Jersey Turnpike, also claimed the life of his 82-year-old wife, Alicia. Neither of the two drivers involved in the accident sustained life-threatening injuries. Born in West Virginia in 1928, Nash displayed an acuity for mathematics early in life, independently proving Fermat’s little theorem before graduating from high school. By the time he turned 30 in 1958, he was a bona fide academic celebrity. At Princeton, Nash published a 27-page thesis that upended the field of game theory and led to applications in economics, international politics, and evolutionary biology. His signature solution—known as a “Nash Equilibrium”—found that competition among two opponents is not necessarily governed by zero-sum logic. Two opponents can, for instance, each achieve their maximum objectives through cooperating with the other, or gain nothing at all by refusing to cooperate. This intuitive, deceptively simple understanding is now regarded as one of the most important social science ideas in the 20th century, and a testament to his almost singular intellectual gifts.But in the late 1950s, Nash began a slide into mental illness—later diagnosed as schizophrenia—that would cost him his marriage, derail his career, and plague him with powerful delusions. Nash believed at various times that he was the biblical figure Job, a Japanese shogun, and a “messianic figure of great but secret importance.” He obsessed with numbers and believed the New York Times published coded messages from extraterrestrials that only he could read.

Mental institutions and electroshock therapy failed to cure him, and for much of the next three decades, Nash wandered freely on the Princeton campus, scribbling idly on empty blackboards and staring blankly ahead in the library.

More here.