The Nash Musings

Since the news of the tragic death recently of John Nash and his wife in an automobile accident last weekend, some of those who were at Princeton during the same time I was (late 70s, early 80s) have been exchanging emails of their memories of Nash from that time. It turns out that two of them, Mark Schneider and Steven Bottone, had transcribed some of Nash’s blackboard writings in a notebook. Here’s Steve’s account of this:

Back in May 1979, just after our general examination, Mark Schneider and I decided we would write down some of the writings that Nash left on the blackboards around Jadwin. Mark sat in a wheeled desk chair with a steno notebook in hand and I wheeled him from board to board as he transcribed the musings. I believe if we had done this even six months earlier we would have had a lot more interesting samples of Nash’s writings, but I think he was already starting to tail off on his output by May 1979. As far as I know, we were the only Princetonians who thought of compiling any of this. I have made a PDF out of the musings.

Since I suspect quite a few people are curious about these blackboard writings (including me, they mostly had ended by the time I got to Princeton in late 1979), Mark and Steve have allowed me to make the pdf available, see the link above. Mark points out that they didn’t actually see Nash writing these, so his authorship is an assumption. Steve notes that the handwriting was distinctive, and that the general assumption was that Nash was the author.

Update: Princeton has now made available publicly Nash’s graduate school records, see here.

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22 Responses to The Nash Musings

  1. Luca Signorelli says:

    Wow. It’s stuff out of a Philip K. Dick late novel, like “Valis”.

  2. andrew says:

    I’m not sure I’m comfortable reading his blackboard notes – I presume he wrote them when he was unwell. The notes might gratify a crass curiosity about his mental illness (e.g. “just how nuts was he?”), but what can we actually learn about Nash or mental illness from them?

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Nash wrote them to communicate with others, I don’t think his privacy is being invaded by reproducing them. Yes, he was ill, and they are symptoms of his illness, which they give some insight into. One might legitimately take the attitude this is none of our business, or also legitimately I think, instead want to understand more about what he was going through.

  4. andrew says:

    Peter. In a thorough biographical piece about Nash, the notes might help to form a complete understanding of his state of mind, but without that context they aren’t particularly valuable, and, in my opinion, are in slighlty bad taste.

  5. Luca Signorelli says:

    Andrew I strongly disagree about the bad taste. As Peter said, they’re attempts to communicate with the public, not private writings. And the biography and ilness of Nash are well known to the public.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    I would think that anyone interested enough to read these things would have some interest in understanding Nash and his state of mind. I do recommend again to anyone with such an interest to read the Sylvia Nasar biography, which is quite good (and evidently includes some other samples of this kind of writing by Nash).

  7. andrew says:

    Peter, we can agree to disagree. I will continue to enjoy reading your blog. All the best.

  8. S. Molnar says:

    I believe the Nasar biography contains not just other examples of the blackboard writings, but some from this set. As far as I know, Nash did not object to this, and it’s my understanding that he and his wife were active to some degree in publicizing mental health issues (someone can correct me if I’m mistaken on either count). It seems to me that there are two reasons for suppressing this material: general privacy concerns, which I believe Nash himself did not see as a problem, and a sense that there is something shameful about them, which I feel is akin to blaming the victim. I don’t doubt Andrew’s sincerity and good intentions, but I’m not convinced his prescription is applicable here. I freely admit to being less than well-informed on this particular case, but I don’t see the difference between hiding the public writings of someone who is mentally ill and, say, hiding the evidence of partial paralysis of someone, possibly a president, who suffered from polio.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    S. Molnar,
    I believe these were one of the sources Sylvia Nasar had access to, so that’s why some of them are in her book.

  10. Jim Conant says:

    I don’t think these are in bad taste. If they were accompanied by snarky or derisive commentary, that would be a different story. Not only do these give some insight into Nash’s condition, but I also think they read like found poetry.

  11. Oyster Boy says:

    Let me just put it this way… I wish there were a better record of a period in my life when my perceptions were not shared by others who were in a better position to define “reality”. And I wish there was less stigma surrounding talking about it openly. To sweep the unsettling bits under the rug is more a disservice than to allow them broader display in the light of day.

    For those who knew me before and after, respect was never diminished. And I later achieved an even higher level of general public respect. It was only the strangers, and the social protocol of not talking about it that made me realize how real the stigma was. Do not hide it away. Promote candid conversation and awareness.

  12. Roger says:

    If you are concerned about Nash’s privacy, then you must surely object to Nasar’s unauthorized biography of him. It had a lot of dubious and privacy-invading allegations against Nash.

  13. Pingback: Rescatan apuntes esquizofrénicos de John Nash en Princeton - - Smart Systems Ltda.

  14. Mark Schneider says:

    There has been enough conversation about the appropriateness of posting this material that I thought it might be helpful if I gave my view on this, since I not only assented to the posting, but was originally motivated to record them.

    Let me first relate a parallel story. Both my mother and her best friend, in close sequence, suffered from and ultimately succumbed to dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. As their rationality was stripped away, there were other aspects of their personalities that remained, made even more visible in the absence of cognitive abilities that we use to mask our true emotions. My “aunt’s” deep and authentic kindness remained in her actions and comments, and my mother’s ability to be simultaneously gentle but firm remained, expressed in frustrations with my father that I had not really understood when she was well, but which were later confirmed by a close relation after my mother’s death. And yes, both of these women exhibited these traits in behaviors that were comical as well as tragic; being able to laugh a bit eased the pain of seeing loved ones slowly leave us, and never diminished our respect for them.

    Why did we want to record these writings that were almost certainly the work of John Nash? I won’t claim to speak for Steve, but let me go beyond my slim quotation in Sylvia Nasar’s book. Yes, many of these writings were funny. But at the same time there was an exceptional ingenuity to them, and perhaps some insights into Nash’s personality. It would be easy to look at his brief PhD dissertation and picture him as a brilliant individual who just tossed it off in a couple weeks work in a break from playing Hex. But I suspect the detail work that was evident in his board writings (even in his careful handwriting and layout, which I attempted to reproduce faithfully) was characteristic of the meticulous, time-consuming effort that he put into all of his work, regardless of his health. I recall times when a curious graduate student would erase a word or two of a board writing, only to find it scrupulously restored shortly thereafter. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to argue these are personality insights that are more difficult to obtain from a healthy individual, who is concerned with maintaining public perceptions of casual brilliance. Maybe one could even infer from the persistent theme of world leaders that Nash hoped that his insights could be useful in bettering the globe.

    And finally, for those of you who have also followed some of the comments on the NY Times article, there was considerable criticism of the Nobel committee for being slow and hesitant to award the prize to Nash, seeing this as unjustified discrimination against him for an illness over which he had no control. Someone unfamiliar with Nash might think that his condition was akin to folks we may know who suffer from depression, or bipolar disorder, but are largely able to function. But the Nobel committee, I’m sure, worried about the highly public nature of this award, probably the highest intellectual honor in the world. Would having Nash at the ceremony be so destructive as to unfairly detract from the honor for the rest of the awardees? Moreover, would such an award to an individual who has lost a grip on reality be a public relations nightmare for the Nobel prize? I am not suggesting I know the right answer to these questions, but I respect them as being very thorny questions. The content of these board writings might help people understand the difficulties faced both by John Nash and the Nobel committee.

  15. David Derbes says:


    Sylvia Nasar had, I believe, the complete cooperation of Alicia Nash (who comes across in Nasar’s biography as a woman of great kindness and strength) and at the least was not opposed by John Nash, who at the time of the biography, seems to have been, to a first or better approximation, his healthy, pre-psychotic self. (I should mention that I responded to a request in the Princeton Alumni Weekly from Nasar and wrote her a letter about my extremely limited knowledge of Nash in the early 1970’s. Some of that appears in her book.)

    When Nash wrote his blackboards, they were clearly intended to be seen. And after he returned to health, he could certainly have let it be known that he would prefer them to be forgotten. I don’t think there is either an invasion of privacy or bad taste here. If we don’t know what the phenomenon is, we have no hope of understanding it, perhaps with a hope of lessening its effects on others.

    I don’t want to name names, but there is (or was; I do not know if he is still alive) in my neighborhood a near-clone of Nash’s case, a brilliant and highly respected professor at the University of Chicago who seems to have succumbed to schizophrenia. For years he wandered the streets of Hyde Park aimlessly with an upright umbrella and an increasingly filthy handkerchief held in front of him, singing opera. I think Princeton did enormously better by John Nash than Chicago by its former biology professor. Probably the signal difference was Alicia Nash. I do not know if the Chicago professor had as stalwart a wife (or any wife) as John Nash did. With luck some psychiatrists will learn a little more about this terrifying disease from the Nash record, including the blackboards, and maybe begin to understand it a little better.

  16. John Lowery says:

    Waiting for more information on Nash’s reformulation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Anyone know more about this as seen in the Daily Mail(UK):
    ‘….The ‘Beautiful Mind’ mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. (pictured), who died last week, had told a friend he had discovered a replacement equation for Einstein’s theory of relativity. Award-winning mathematician Cédric Villani said Nash had explained the work on Einstein’s theory to him three days before his death. Nash and his wife Alicia, 82, were killed in a taxi crash in New Jersey in the US last week…’

  17. Thomas Hannagan says:

    See here for Villani’s talk at the Hey Festival:

    The Nash discussion starts at about 45′.
    Looks like Nash discussed an equation bearing on general relativity, which he had apparently showed to Einstein in his time, but Villani does in no way mention any “replacement for Einstein’s theory of relativity”…

  18. Andy P. says:

    David Derbes : I remember the guy you’re talking about from Hyde Park. Over the five years I was in graduate school at Chicago, we frequently encountered him on the street. Twice he freaked out and started screaming obscenities at my children. I remember being very surprised to learn (from a fellow student, later confirmed via internet searches) that he was a professor and not a random homeless person. I have never heard stories about Nash behaving aggressively like that, which is perhaps one of the reasons that Princeton tolerated him more than Chicago tolerates their former faculty member.

  19. Steven Bottone says:

    Hopefully I will only have to use this term once, and I will put it in quotes: I will not conjecture on “mental illness”. When (presumably) Nash placed these writings on the blackboards in Jadwin and Fine Halls, he most certainly did so for others to read. For those not familiar with these buildings on the Princeton campus, let me point out these writings appeared on the blackboards that lined the hallways, stretching from floor to ceiling, and in full public view. It is a fair assumption to make that whoever wrote these messages meant for them to be read by all passing by.

    As Mark pointed out in a previous comment, these writings were meticulously composed and quite carefully formatted to fit neatly, yet artistically, into the space available. The handwriting was so distinctive that it would be nearly impossible mistake these notes for those of another author. Indeed, we would occasionally see attempts at imitating these writings, but there was no mistaking which of these were authored by the person who has been described as “The Phantom of Fine Hall”.

    I would say that most of our fellow graduated students were genuinely intrigued by these writings and it was always the case that if I walked by a new contribution I would stop to read it and if I were with others they too would stop to read it. Comments were often of the form as to the meaning of these messages and even if on the surface it appeared that the comment was one of ridicule, there was nevertheless invariably an undertone of awe.

    I prefer to look at these writings in the spirit that I think Nash posted them. I think he wrote them for his own amusement, and for the amusement of the rest of us. They are meant to be satirical, usually political, commentary. They are funny. I ask those of our literary friends out there to comment on the content of these writings based on their own merit. Do they show great wit? Is this the work of a great satirist, who actually has an almost unique breadth of knowledge of political history, popular culture, and mathematics? This is how I prefer to view these fascinating musings.

  20. Neil says:

    I find these musings most interesting, but baffling. One cannot dismiss them as ramblings without some context, and Nash did not provide any. But one can do some interpretation based on the time they were written. For example, lon nol almost certainly refers to the Khmer president. It would have been witty, and characteristic, had Nash added the comment “ceci n’est pas un palindrome”, so he was clearly not in his best form.

    I was disappointed so many comments were political and social commentary, rather than mathematics. I was hoping for the bones of some brilliant conjecture.

  21. To be honest, that statement by Nash about Ford and Nixon is one of the most insightful statements about American politics of the last thirty years that I have seen.

  22. SeekingSanity says:

    Invading privacy? Come on. These notes were written on public blackboards.

    Lets have some perspective here. Yes you can talk about privacy, but these notes hardly cross the line. Especially since the person in question had an biography and indeed a major motion picture on their very private life released to the general public.

    There’s also a clear public interest element in publishing these. Someone who wrote these was a tenured professor at the institution in question for many years. This can be taken in many ways; 1) It was dangerous to do so, 2) it shows that it was not dangerous, but either way publishing these allows people do debate based on something concrete.

    Personally I think it shows just how far academia can tolerate eccentricity, and that’s a good thing within reason. Especially as we enter an age of increased careerism and corporatism in higher education. The ability to have a professor like could represent a strength of the traditional academy — though I’m sure many would now be happy to spin it as a weakness.

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