John Nash, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ Laureate, Dies in Crash

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Noble Laureate Professor John Nash
Noble Laureate Professor John Nash. Photographer: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

John Nash, the Princeton University mathematician and Nobel laureate whose towering intellect and descent into paranoid schizophrenia formed the basis of the Academy Award-winning movie “A Beautiful Mind,” has died. He was 86.

Nash and his wife, Alicia, were killed when the taxi they were riding in crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike Saturday afternoon, ejecting the couple, New Jersey State Police Sergeant Gregory Williams said Sunday.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics to Nash, John Harsanyi of the University of California-Berkeley and Reinhard Selten of the University of Bonn in Germany for their work in game theory, which seeks to understand how people, governments and companies cooperate and compete.

“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 marveled at their courage,” Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, said in an e-mailed statement.

Actor Russell Crowe, who portrayed Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” said in a posting Sunday on Twitter, “Stunned ... my heart goes out to John & Alicia & family. An amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.” The film’s director, Ron Howard, tweeted that “it was an honor telling part of their story.”

’Hellish’ Life

Nash was honored for his early insights, still widely used in economics, into how rivals shift or maintain strategies and allegiances. The Nash Equilibrium describes the moment when all parties are pursuing their best-case scenario and wouldn’t change course even if a rival does. It has been widely applied to matters including military face-offs, industrial price wars and labor negotiations.

Nash’s work was of interest mainly to fellow mathematicians and economists until the release in 1998 of “A Beautiful Mind,” a book by Sylvia Nasar stemming from her profile of Nash in the New York Times in 1995. Howard adapted the book into the 2001 film also starring Jennifer Connelly as Nash’s wife. The movie won the Academy Award for best picture, with Howard and Connelly winning Oscars as well. Crowe, nominated as best actor, lost to Denzel Washington for “Training Day.”

The book and movie told of how Nash, beginning in his early 30s, battled paranoid schizophrenia and how the mental disorder derailed his academic career and turned his life “hellish,” as Nasar put it.

Strange Equations

After stays in psychiatric hospitals and a period wandering around Europe, he returned to Princeton and “became the Phantom of Fine Hall, a mute figure who scribbled strange equations on blackboards in the mathematics building and searched anxiously for secret messages in numbers,” Nasar wrote.

Nash began to emerge from his schizophrenia in the 1980s, when he was well into his 50s, having lost many of his productive years to the disorder.

The Nash whom Crowe portrays in the movie is haunted by visions of non-existent friends and enemies. The real Nash said he didn’t imagine people, but heard bizarre voices in his head and thought he saw codes and signals hidden in newspapers.

In 2002, Nash went on CBS’s “60 Minutes” to combat disparaging rumors that may have been spread to undermine the movie’s Oscar chances. Among the allegations was that the movie had scrubbed from Nash’s life story evidence of anti-Semitism and adultery.

Paranoid Delusions

Nasar, the author, responded with an op-ed piece calling those characterizations untrue. A 1967 letter from Nash cited as evidence of his anti-Semitism, Nasar said, was written when his paranoid delusions had him thinking he was “Job, a slave in chains, the emperor of Antarctica and a messiah.”

Nash said in the “60 Minutes” interview, “I did have strange ideas during certain periods of time.”

John Forbes Nash Jr. was born on June 13, 1928, in the Appalachian coal-mining and railroad town of Bluefield, West Virginia. He was the first of two children of John Nash, an electrical engineer, and his wife Virginia, a former school teacher. In an autobiography for the Nobel Foundation, Nash said he was reading E.T. Bell’s “Men of Mathematics” and proving Fermat’s Little Theorem by the time he was in high school.

Bargaining Theory

He won a George Westinghouse Scholarship to attend Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. He shifted from chemical engineering to chemistry, then to mathematics. He graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Late in his time at Carnegie, stimulated by an elective course in international economics, Nash began work on a paper offering his take on how two parties can reach accommodation while bargaining. At Princeton, which he chose over Harvard University for his graduate studies, he continued his work on game theory during doctoral studies beginning in 1948.

His Ph.D. thesis, written when he was a student of Albert W. Tucker, was the foundation for his Nobel award decades later. By extending game-theory analysis to situations that aren’t zero-sum games, he built upon the work of Princeton’s John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, who had broken ground in the field with a 1944 book.

MIT, Marriage

Nash taught at Princeton for a year after receiving his Ph.D. in 1950. After a brief stint at the Rand Corp., he joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was there until 1959. His work during that time included solving the so-called embedding problem in differential geometry and devising what became known as the Nash bargaining solution.

He and Alicia Larde, who met at MIT when she took his advanced-calculus course, married in 1957. It was early in 1959, when Alicia was pregnant with their son, John Charles Nash -- Nash had another son, John David Stier, from a relationship before he married -- that Nash began experiencing what he later termed his “mental disturbances.”

Involuntary Commitments

He resigned from the MIT faculty and spent 50 days at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, the first of several involuntary commitments to psychiatric institutions.

Wandering through Europe, he “feared he was being spied on and hunted down and he tried to give up his United States citizenship,” Nasar wrote. Back home, he separated from his wife and spent time with his mother in Roanoke, Virginia. He tried to resume his research during what he called his “interludes of, as it were, enforced rationality.”

Nash’s wife continued to support him following their divorce in 1963, and he lived with her in Princeton most of the time. They remarried in 2001.

In his autobiographical piece for the Nobel Foundation, Nash reported “thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists,” though he said rational thought had a downside, since it “imposes a limit on a person’s concept of his relation to the cosmos.”

Son’s Struggles

The film version of “A Beautiful Mind” culminated with Nash paying tribute to his wife in his Nobel acceptance speech. In reality, Nash didn’t give a Nobel lecture.

Like his father, the Nashes’ son, known as Johnny, earned a Ph.D. in math and struggled with schizophrenia. In 1999, John and Alicia Nash came forward to support New Jersey’s community mental-health programs, like the one that allowed their son to live at home, in the face of budget cuts.

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