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Happy Birthday, John Nash, Mathematician and Researcher

June 13, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Mathematician John Nash rose to fame when the biographical film “A Beautiful Mind” was released in 2001. But Nash’s life story is even more wrought with intrigue and struggle than the Oscar-winning movie portrays. Nash’s 1994 Nobel Prize is a testament to his perseverance in the face of adversity, namely schizophrenia.

John Nash’s Early Days

John Nash was born on June 13, 1928, in the small city of Bluefield, W.V., in the Appalachian Mountains. His father, also named John Nash, worked as an electrical engineer, while his mother, Margaret Virginia Martin, taught English and Latin before marrying.

Nash attended public schools, and often read from his parents’ encyclopedia and from the books at his grandparents’ house nearby. In his autobiography for the Nobel Foundation, Nash describes Bluefield as less academic than business-oriented; it “offered the sort of challenge that one had to learn from the world's knowledge rather than from the knowledge of the immediate community.”

He became interested in electrical and chemistry experiments by the time he reached high school, and considered becoming an electrical engineer. Nash eventually enrolled in Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and majored in chemical engineering, but he would lose interest in chemical engineering after being introduced to international economics.

Nash’s Work in Economics and Mathematics

The New School describes Nash’s early success as a mathematician. At age 21, he wrote a 27-page dissertation that outlined the “‘Nash Equilibrium’ for strategic non-cooperative games,” which had an “enormous” impact on the field. He entered graduate school at Princeton University, and “encountered the theory of games, then recently launched by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern.”

Nash’s career was interrupted in 1958 when he experienced his first paranoid schizophrenic episode. The illness was catastrophic for Nash, resulting in lost jobs and nearly 20 years of aimless roaming. He eventually returned to Princeton, and the schizophrenia subsided in the early 1970s. But Nash had trouble adjusting; in some ways, he felt his disease had allowed him to perform his best, most original work, according to The New School.

In 1994, Nash was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics along with American John C. Harsanyi and German Reinhard Selten “for their pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-cooperative games.”

UAB economics professor Don Ross explains game theory in depth. The theory includes the “Nash equilibrium” (NE), which expanded on previous work by mathematicians John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in 1944.

The Rest of the Story

Sylvia Nasar, a reporter for The New York Times, spent years researching Nash’s life and work, and in 1998 published a biography of him entitled “A Beautiful Mind,” which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The 2001 film adaptation, directed by Ron Howard and starring Russell Crowe as Nash, won four Academy Awards, including Best Film.

Despite earning accolades, the film left out much of Nash’s life, writes Chris Suellentrop for Slate. He describes a few key “lies of omission” on behalf of the filmmakers, including Nash’s homosexual experiences and strained relationship with wife Alicia Larde. Nasar said that even though the filmmakers didn’t create a literal representation of Nash’s life, they did stay “true to the spirit of Nash’s story.” 

PBS’ American Experience documentary “A Brilliant Madness” offers a more accurate look at Nash’s life. The program’s Web site includes a teacher’s guide that explores American history topics, such as the Cold War and the uses of Nash’s game theory in foreign diplomacy.

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