At the age of 30, mathematician John Nash suffered his first episode of schizophrenia. In the biography A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar describes several pressures and stressors combined to shatter his fragile mental state.
Nash’s genius was evident from his first entrance into the academic world as he pondered the most complex mathematical questions with the greatest minds of his time. He received numerous accolades for his work as s a young professor, including being identified by Fortune magazine as one of the brightest young mathematicians by the time he turned 30. As gratifying as these honors were, they also produced significant pressure to live up to expectations.
Simultaneous with his successes, Nash experienced major disappointments in a career that was not taking off as he had expected. In 1957, Nash was working on proving a continuity theorem. Unbeknownst to him, an obscure Italian mathematician, Ennio DeGiorgi, was working on the same project and succeeded in publishing his proof ahead of Nash. This was a double blow, because not only did Nash have to share credit for this discovery, not publishing an innovative mathematical breakthrough jeopardized his candidacy for receiving the Fields medal. As there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics; this award serves as the equivalent. Nash was never awarded the Fields medal and felt acute disappointment for the rest of his life. Furthermore—
Nash’s thirtieth year was thus looking very bright. He had scored a major success. He was adulated and lionized as never before. Fortune magazine was about to feature him as one of the brightest young stars of mathematics in an upcoming series on the “New Math” ... Yet his good fortune seemed at times only to highlight the gap between his ambitions and what he had achieved.. He had hoped for an appointment at Harvard or Princeton. As it was, he was not yet a full professor at MIT, nor did he have tenure ... A number of people in the department felt he was a poor teacher and an even worse colleague.
Nash’s disappointments only served to drive him to even more ambitious aspirations.
“I embarked on [a project] to revise quantum theory,” Nash said in his 1996 Madrid lecture. “It was not a priori absurd for a non-physicist. Einstein had criticized the indeterminacy of the quantum mechanics of Heisenberg”… ... It was this attempt that Nash would blame, decades later in a lecture to psychiatrists, for triggering his mental illness—calling his attempt to resolve the contradictions in quantum theory, on which he embarked in the summer of 1957, “possibly overreaching and psychologically destabilizing.”
Nash’s lofty goal of attempting to revise quantum theory eventually became his undoing.