John Forbes Nash, Jr., was born on June 13, 1928, in Bluefield, West Virginia. His father, John Nash, Sr., was an electrical engineer who left Texas to work for the Appalachian Power Company in Bluefield, where he met Margaret Virginia Martin, whom he married in 1924. Nothing in the birth or upbringing of John Nash, Jr., offers any clue to his later illness. John and Virginia Nash were educated and loving parents to both him and his sister, Martha, born in 1930. John was a healthy, handsome child but quiet and introverted. His mother taught him to read by the age of four and apparently watched closely over his progress at school, where he was a difficult pupil given to constant talking and indifference to rules.
A significant event in Nash’s life came at the age of thirteen or fourteen when he read E. T. Bell’s book of biographical sketches, Men of Mathematics. Bell gave vivid accounts of the mathematical problems that inspired his subjects when they were young, and his essay on Pierre de Fermat and number theory especially appealed to the youthful Nash. His precociousness and his mean practical jokes set Nash apart from other high school students in Bluefield, but he excelled in his studies and took courses at Bluefield College along with his high-school work, doing so well that he was accepted at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and won a full scholarship, one of ten Westinghouse awards given nationally.
Nash’s three years at Carnegie were difficult socially, for his awkwardness and attraction to other boys elicited the ridicule of his fellow students, but the talented teachers in the mathematics department nurtured his brilliance so well that in 1948 he was accepted in the graduate programs at Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, and Michigan. During his first year at Princeton, Nash became absorbed in board games, especially the difficult games “Go” and “Kriegsspiel,” and soon devised his own topological game known as “John” or “Nash.” (Nash’s game was apparently an independent invention of one already invented by a Dane, Piet Hein, and sold by Parker Brothers as Hex.) Nash’s matriculation at Princeton coincided happily with the beginning of John von Neumann’s tenure at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. Von Neumann was acknowledged as the most brilliant of living mathematicians, and his presence around Princeton was a great boost to creative thinking. In 1944, with Oskar Morgenstern, he had published The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, the seminal text in game theory which was built around zero-sum, two-person games in which one contestant’s gain was an opponent’s equivalent loss.
Nash first became interested in bargaining problems when he took a course in international trade at Carnegie. Thus, Nash was already prepared to tackle these puzzles when he encountered game theory at Princeton, and in his second term there he wrote “The Bargaining Problem” to demonstrate how in economic exchanges an equilibrium point can be reached if all players are playing their best strategies. Nasar says, “He proved that for a certain very broad class of games of any number of players, at least one equilibrium exists—so long as one allows mixed strategies.” Nobody at the time realized the significance of the so-called “Nash equilibrium” for later work in economics, social science, and biology.
In 1950 Nash spent the first of several summers working in Santa Monica, California, at RAND (for “research and development”), an Air Force think tank interested at the time in game theory. Back at Princeton in the fall, Nash clinched his credentials as a pure mathematician with a paper on “Real Algebraic Manifolds” and accepted an instructorship at MIT for 1951. As a new instructor—at twenty-three the youngest in the department—Nash quickly became known for his superciliousness but also for his genius. The MIT years were punctuated by summers at RAND, where Nash’s attraction to other men led to his dismissal in August, 1954, when he was caught in a police sting in a men’s room in Palisades Park.
Two years earlier, however, Nash had met a young nurse, Eleanor Stier, and on June 19, 1953, they were the parents of a son, John David Stier. Nash’s behavior toward Eleanor Stier did him no credit. The social gulf between them led Nash to keep Eleanor a secret from his friends, and his refusal to marry her or support her and their son forced her to put the child in foster care. Twelve years later, after a period of hospitalization for schizophrenia, Nash resumed seeing Eleanor and John, who had had a miserable childhood in a succession of foster homes. Nash promised to pay for John’s college education. Their closeness dwindled after a few months, but in 1993 John Stier—now an Amherst graduate working as a registered nurse—spent several days...
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