Still a Beautiful Mind – and an Inspiring West Virginian
Editor's note: Nobel-prize winning mathematician John Nash and his wife were killed in a traffic accident May 23, 2015. This profile from 2013 is part of our series, "Inspiring West Virginians."
The 9th floor of Fine Hall, the math building at Princeton University, is a place some people call the mathematical center of the universe.
Here you’ll find the office of 84-year-old John Forbes Nash, Jr., one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.
One whole bookshelf in Nash’s office is lined with photos of his hometown, Bluefield, West Virginia. Nash left the state more than 60 years ago, but clearly it’s still important to him.
“This is my high school in Bluefield,” he said, sharing the picture of his 50th high school class reunion. “I’m in the corner here.”
Over his lifetime, Nash has sought and solved some of mathematics’ most difficult problems, in ways that have amazed other mathematicians, all while overcoming great trials.
In 2001 Ron Howard made a film about Nash called “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe. It won the Oscar for Best Picture. The film and the book on which the film is based tell the story of Nash’s meteoric rise in the mathematical world, his early career teaching at MIT, his sudden descent into severe mental illness, and his ultimate recovery.
John Nash’s story begins in Mercer County.
“My mother had been born there, and she had sisters,” Nash explained. “I had only one sibling – my sister – and that’s a special relationship.”
Martha Nash Legg remembers Bluefield as a lovely place to grow up, and she describes her brother as studious.
“I guess today we’d call him nerdy!” she said. “His friends were also bright. He liked science fiction.”
“And he was musical. He is musical – to the extent that he can whistle Bach!” laughed Legg.
Nash says he was quite aware that he wasn’t close to people other than relatives.
“I guess I’m a little like an Asperger’s type,” he said. “I didn’t have very strong friendship relations generally. I wasn’t just a buddy of the group.”
Even as a little boy, Johnny, as his family called him, was drawn to mathematics.
“I did have a taste for numbers. In school I liked to work with larger numbers than we were taught to use, 5 digits rather than 2 or 3,” Nash remembered.
He points to Men of Mathematics, by E.T. Bell as a book he read as a child that really influenced him.
“He’s an American,” said Nash. “The book was inspiring in the way it talked about the mathematical discoveries and what these people had done.”
Nash was particularly intrigued by the 17th Century French mathematician, Pierre de Fermat. As a 14-year-old, Nash succeeded in proving Fermat’s Theorem.
After high school he went to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. In just three years he earned a bachelors and masters in mathematics. One of his teachers recognized Nash was a mathematical genius, and encouraged him to go to Princeton University for a PhD.
At Princeton Nash’s dissertation was in a field called game theory. At the time it was a relatively new concept that explains human behavior.
His main contribution to game theory – which later became known as the Nash Equilibrium – has been used in a wide variety of fields, from economics, to foreign policy, information technology, and evolutionary biology.
Nash also solved a few very, very difficult problems in pure mathematics.
And he did it in a way that still inspires young mathematicians, including Dejan Slepčev, associate professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“Nash’s papers are very brief and have many ideas in them,” said Slepčev. “It’s not just one idea that solves everything but at every step there is a new idea and yet there is the whole picture of how everything fits together.”
“So that is the beauty of the thing,” he said. “So if you speak about the beautiful mind, then it must be the mind which is able to store so many new ideas together at the same time.”
At the height of this brilliant young mathematician’s career, John Nash developed paranoid schizophrenia, a severe mental illness.
For more than 25 years he had delusions about who he was, who other people were and messages he believed he was receiving.
He wandered the campus of Princeton University, writing on blackboards and whistling Bach to himself. He became known as “The Phantom of Fine Hall.”
And then, without medication, he started to get better.
One morning in 1994, a few years after Nash returned to what he calls rational thinking, Legg says an amazing thing happened.
“The radio was on in the bedroom. And I heard them say something about a Nobel Prize Award in Economics, and I thought they said, ‘John Nash in game theory,’” Legg recalled.
“And it brought tears to my eyes thinking how much my parents would have loved to have heard that.”
The Nobel Prize changed John Nash’s life. Princeton University gave him a job, and he received further awards and honors.
The man who was almost forgotten was invited to lecture at universities throughout the world.
Today Nash continues to tackle difficult problems in mathematics and economics at Princeton University.
“Well, it’s not unusual to work to 70, maybe 75, but now I’m 84. I could go to 90!”
John Nash, who rarely gives interviews, is featured with others in the West Virginia Public Radio documentary Inspiring West Virginians, produced by Jean Snedegar with Senior Producer Suzanne Higgins.