John Nash 1928-2015

I was sorry to hear this morning that John Nash and his wife Alicia died yesterday in a car crash (news story here). They were in a taxi on the New Jersey Turnpike, heading home from the airport after a trip to Norway where Nash was awarded the Abel Prize.

Nash’s mathematical career was cut short by the onset of mental illness, which he then struggled with for many years. Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind is a wonderful biography, doing a great job of accurately portraying Nash’s life, including the role of the mathematics community in its various parts. The movie version is another story, especially in the way it shows Nash’s mathematical achievements as somehow being due to his delusions, when what really happened is that the onset of delusional thinking is what made it no longer possible for him to continue doing research at the highest level.

During the years I was a graduate student in Princeton, Nash was often to be seen, especially in the mathematics/physics library, and I talked to him a few times. The first time was when he stopped me one day, told me he had seen my name on the physics department picture board, and was curious about the origin of my last name. While I had heard stories about Nash, that he was mentally ill, spent his time writing delusional things on the hallway blackboards, he seemed fine to me. This was a period (early 1980s) when he had stopped writing on the blackboards and was successfully dealing with the illness. I was very glad to see how later on he was able to lead a more normal life and enjoy the recognition he deserved.

Update: The New York Times has an excellent long obituary of Nash this morning, presumably mostly prepared before his death.

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20 Responses to John Nash 1928-2015

  1. Bill says:

    This tragedy reminds me that we are all human, even though we all tend to lose touch with reality and forget what it means.

  2. Neil says:

    Are we sure that his blackboard scribblings were delusional? I mean his real ones, not the ones in the movie. Did anyone write them down?

  3. Pingback: John Nash and his Wife Killed in Car Accident

  4. Peter Woit says:

    The blackboard writings were mostly before my time (I got there in 1979). I’m sure people read them and tried to make sense of them, never heard of anyone saying that they had been insightful as opposed to delusional. Nash himself may be the best source about this, I recall reading somewhere comments from him about what was going on in his mind during those years and what he thought about it from his later, non-delusional point of view.
    There’s no question though that he was ill during this period, and the effects of this disease in terms of delusional thinking are well-known.

  5. Dan says:

    Sad to hear about their passing. On a happier tangent, regarding the NYT obituaries, here is an interesting article where one of their writing staff explains the somewhat weird process by which they write “advance” obits, including interviewing the “pre-dead” subjects…

  6. David Derbes says:

    Nash and obituaries.
    I was an undergraduate 1970-74 at Princeton and knew Nash a very little, again mostly from extremely brief interactions with him at Fine-Jadwin (the math and physics buildings are connected, and the library is on the ground floor/basement with holdings for both.) Back then one could smoke in the building, and I would occasionally bum a light or a smoke from him (never the other way.) The writings on the blackboard were typically done overnight and usually involved very large numbers raised to very large exponents. I wish I’d taken pictures of them. I had a few courses at 8:00 and was greeted by new results frequently. Now and then in the middle of the night my lab partner Mark Johnston and I would see him at the Computer Center (it was the only time we could get on; Mark wrote the Fortran code to analyze our lab data.) My friend Danny Rohrlich, now at the Technion I think, the nephew of Fritz Rohrlich and himself now a physicist, double majored in physics and psychology. He had, I think, pretty normal conversations with Nash when nobody else could. I had two very brief and memorable interactions with Nash after graduation. I went to my 10th reunion in 1984, and leaving Monday morning to go visit a friend in New York, got off the dinky to wait for the train, suddenly realized that I didn’t know when the next train was. I went into the station to look for a schedule, and saw a man with his back to me. I walked up to him and said, Pardon me, do you know when the next train to New York is? He turned around; it was Nash! “No,” he said. Four years later I was on a NSF sponsored teacher summer school at Princeton, when walking up the stairs towards Blair Arch, there was Nash! I said, “Hello, Prof. Nash.” He turned and smiled. “Hello,” he said. He was clearly much, much better. I said, truthfully, “I used to see you around Fine when I was an undergraduate. You look great!” And he said, “I’m feeling good.” It was really wonderful. Something happened between 1984 and 1988. I don’t know what, but the difference was night and day. Nash always liked libraries (Fine-Jadwin, and the main library, Firestone in particular) and trains. My classmates referred to him as the Ghost or the Library Crazy Man. He always wore red Keds.

    Obituaries: Every big newspaper keeps a large file cabinet (or probably now, its electronic equivalent) called the morgue. Newsworthy people get a file and interesting articles and other snippets go into the morgue, to be pulled out when the time comes to write their obituary. That’s why they could put Nash’s obit together rapidly. Feynman’s NYT obit is really good, and appeared the next day. (I learned about this from a friend whose family owned the New Orleans newspaper. His father offered me the use of the morgue to do some high school research into a politician running for governor. Pre-internet.)

  7. Matt Grayson says:

    In 1979, on a Fine Hall blackboard, I saw a list of towns and a claim that 2^(zip code)-1 was prime… He was a ghost then – Russell Crowe perfectly captured the distant look in his eyes. I visited Princeton in 1987, and it was wonderful to see Nash’s improvement.

    I’d forgotten the Keds!

  8. David Derbes says:

    I forgot to mention that Nash’s late night notes were often in the form of a letter, typically from Moses to Brezhnev, or other unlikely world leaders. I think Kruschev also figured in the correspondence, as did famous mathematicians, many of whom I had not then heard of.

  9. paddy says:

    Ave atque vale.

  10. Jeff M says:

    My Nash story, told to me by one of my professors in grad school. He was an undergrad at MIT when Nash was there, Paul Cohen was there at the same time. They would get into pissing contests in the math lounge, each trying to prove he was smarter than the other. So my prof Al would hang around since they would start discussing something and scribbling away on blackboards and Al said he learned a lot watching them. In any case Nash knew Al to say hi to, and one day he comes up to him and hands him an offprint of one of his papers. Al takes it, says thank you, and then opens it up. On the inside of the cover was a very elaborately drawn and calligraphed “interstellar drivers license” valid everywhere in the galaxy, made out to Al Vasquez, and marked as being “valid in perpetuity.” Al was kind of confused, this was before Nash had his public break. Later, when Nash was hospitalized, he contacted Al through one of the MIT profs to let him know that despite the fact that the license he gave him was good forever, Nash was going to have to revoke it. Needless to say Al still has the license.

  11. My Dad met him a few times at IAS and always said that “he didn’t seem any stranger than anyone else there”!

  12. Nathalie says:

    What kind of Nobel Prize did Nash get?

    There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics and the one in economy is the The State Bank of Sweden Prize created 3/4 of century after Nobel had passed away.

  13. Casey Leedom says:

    Nathalie, “… he shared the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with game theorists Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi.”,_Jr.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Casey Leedom,
    Nathalie is just referring to, as Wikipedia notes, the fact that the prize Nash got is technically the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, commonly (and misleadingly) referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics”. The Abel prize is also not a Nobel prize, although set up to be in some ways equivalent. At the time Nash got the Abel, I commented here
    that “This surely makes him the first person to win not-quite-Nobels in two completely different fields.”, but that was challenged here

  15. Kieron says:

    [Something I shared with my friends when I heard, on Facebook. – kieron]
    A profound loss, but also a source of some hope….
    John Nash was a great mathematician. He, tragically, was involved in a traffic accident in a taxi on his way back from the airport, with his wife Alicia, after receiving the (Norwegian) Abel Prize for his work on non-linear differential equations and geometric analysis (with Louis Nirenberg). Both John & Alicia were killed, on Saturday, and one might hope they are together now.
    Although he is best known for the “Nash equilibrium” (eventually sharing the Nobel prize in Economics as a result) which extends game theory to non-zero-sum contexts and paved the way to real-world economic use, he did mathematically more profound work later, in different fields — after, thankfully, returning to sanity. That range and depth is rare in modern mathematics, which has been increasingly specialized. (I can only think of Terry Tao as someone as wide ranging and recognised, in modern maths.) He was a prodigious talent and, despite Hollywood, his illness was clearly a handicap, not a help or inspiration.
    The story of his return from illness, and rebuilding his professional and personal life is touching and heartwarming too. A story that gives us all hope that our troubles will pass and that a bright future exists and is attainable and that help, companionship and support are so important — an indispensable part of humanity.
    I met him once, at a colloquium at Princeton in the very early ’90’s when I was doing work on X Windows at MIT. He seemed sane enough then, and I barely understood the differential geometry he was talking about. 🙂
    Check out this rather good obituary at the NYT:…/john-nash-a-beautiful-mind-subject…
    Truly A Beautiful Mind. RIP.
    – kieron

  16. S. Molnar says:

    I’m not sure what to make of this, but since both Nash and NSA are recurring subjects here, it might be of interest: The blogger is the son of a well-known logician. Speaking of logicians, the Guardian obituary, which is a disappointment, claims Nash was being funny when he said that among mathematicians it is only the logicians who tend not to be sane; the obituarist apparently does not realize that this is a commonplace view.

    Not quite OT, since you mentioned it, do we get the Woit name etymology? I have no idea whether you came by it from a long lineage of Woits or whether it’s a corruption of an entirely different (Polish?) name.

  17. Peter Woit says:

    S. Molnar,
    The name is Latvian (my father was born in Riga), in Latvian, Voits was the family name, spelling changed when they moved to Germany, to agree with German pronunciation.

  18. A. Seibert says:

    I haven’t seen the movie recently, but I don’t think it attributes Nash’s mathematical achievements to his delusions. Granted, it inaccurately shows him as delusional during his mathematical peak, and it links his brilliance and his madness by using the same flashing-numbers special effect for each. But unless I’ve forgotten scenes where Ed Harris and the other apparitions whisper successful proof strategies in Nash’s ear, this merely suggests that both Nash’s brilliance and his delusions may stem from his mind’s rare openness to unusual ideas and appetite for patterns–which was basically the view expressed by post-recovery Nash and by Nasar’s book. That’s quite distinct from saying the delusions caused the mathematics. The only mathematics I recall the movie attributing to the delusions was fictitious “code breaking” stuffed into abandoned mailboxes.

  19. NumCracker says:

    What a stupid way to die … it’s a pity!

  20. Fawaz Isaac says:

    His story taught me a lot, there is no words could describe how his Bio influenced lots of people.
    At the end nothing could be said except, good bye legend, good bye ghost of Fine Hall.


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