A Beautiful Mind

by Sylvia Nasar
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A Beautiful Mind

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1987

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.

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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 with Nash and even accompanied him on a trip to Berlin. Nasar comments that Nash meant well, “But, as in so many other relationships in his life, Nash’s intentions weren’t always matched by the emotional means to carry them out satisfactorily.”

After the birth of John Stier in 1953 and Nash’s dismissal from RAND the following summer, Nash must have been in a low mood when he returned to MIT in the fall of 1954. His fortunes picked up when he became close to one of his former students, Alicia Larde, twenty-one years old, a smart and beautiful MIT physics major born in San Salvador to a prosperous family that moved to the United States in 1944. The courtship went slowly after their first acquaintance in the MIT music library, but by early 1956 they had become intimate. One night that spring, as they lay in bed at Nash’s apartment, the doorbell rang and Eleanor Stier strode in. Alicia was stunned by Eleanor’s revelations but calmed down quickly when she decided Eleanor was no threat to her. Given these developments, Nash was probably relieved to win a Sloan Fellowship, a three-year research grant that allowed him to return to Princeton for a year at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Before taking up his grant at Princeton in the fall of 1956, Nash spent a month in Seattle at a summer institute conducted by the University of Washington and enjoyed a close relationship with Amasa Forrester, who had been a first-year graduate student at Princeton during Nash’s final year there. However, the most important event that summer was the discovery by Nash’s parents that he had a girlfriend and a son in Boston, whom he had no intention of claiming or supporting. When Nash’s mother called him to inform him of her knowledge, she insisted that he return to Boston immediately and marry Eleanor. By this time Eleanor had engaged a lawyer and was demanding child support. Worried that the lawyer would report his situation to the university, Nash agreed to pay.

Nash loved New York City, and he decided to live in an apartment on Bleecker Street during his year at the Institute for Advanced Studies. His father, who had been ill all year, died suddenly in September, and this blow only intensified his difficulties with his mother over Eleanor Stier and their son. Moreover, he may well have felt that the discovery that summer of his secret life helped bring on his father’s death at the age of sixty-four. These worries must have been on Nash’s mind when he began thinking about marrying Alicia. Something of Nash’s sensibility appears in his remark to a friend that he thought Alicia would make a good wife because she watched so much television—that is, she would not be any great nuisance to him. At any rate, Alicia moved to New York and spent Thanksgiving with Nash and his family in Roanoke, Virginia, where his sister lived. Everyone got along fine, but Virginia Nash found the beautiful young physicist not the domestic type she had always foreseen as a daughter-in-law. In February, 1957, Nash and Alicia Larde were married in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and they went to live in an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side.

At the Institute for Advanced Studies Nash worked on two major problems, one involving elliptic partial differential equations and the other an attempt to revise quantum theory. The first resulted in a paper published in 1958 that some mathematicians consider his best work, but his struggle with quantum mechanics wore him out. Nash later said that it was work on quantum mechanics—an effort he called “possibly overreaching and psychologically destabilizing”—that led to his collapse into schizophrenia.

After a trip to Europe in the summer of 1958, the Nashes returned to Cambridge and discovered that Alicia was pregnant. That winter Nash’s behavior started alarming people, especially the incoherent lectures that he gave at Columbia and Yale and a letter rejecting an appointment at the University of Chicago with the excuse that he was going to become the Emperor of Antarctica. His condition became so bad that in April, 1959, Alicia had him committed to McLean Hospital in Cambridge for two months. His son, John Charles Nash, was born a week before his release, by which time Alicia had moved in with an old friend from her student days, Emma Duchane. After holding what he named a “Mad Hatter’s Tea” for the MIT mathematics department, Nash resigned from the university and with a reluctant Alicia sailed for Europe in July on the Queen Mary, leaving the infant—known only as Baby Epsilon—with Alicia’s mother.

The 1960’s were difficult for all the Nashes. Nash was in and out of hospitals several times, and Alicia divorced him in 1963. By 1970 Nash was pitiable in his loneliness and Alicia took him in to live with her in Princeton. Nash gradually returned to normality by 1990, probably in great part because of Alicia’s care and the fact that he had refused the powerful medications urged on him in various hospitals. He believes that he willed himself back to health by monitoring his impulses in much the way one would control one’s diet. A big triumph came in 1990 when he was elected a Fellow in the Econometrics Society, although only after a battle.

The fight over Nash’s election to the Econometrics Society was a mere prelude to the big row that his nomination for a Nobel Prize occasioned, a story that Nasar tells very well. The campaign to win a Nobel Prize for Nash began in 1984, when Ariel Rubenstein of Hebrew University put Nash at the top of his ten-page report on potential candidates who worked in game theory. After several false starts, the prize committee decided in 1993 to make an award for game theory in 1994, fifty years after the publication of von Neumann and Morgenstern’s famous book. Nash immediately became a leading candidate, but he encountered powerful opposition on the committee before finally triumphing with two co-winners, Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi.

The ceremony went off smoothly, with Nash giving a short speech in which he hoped that the prize might improve his credit rating enough that he could get a credit card. Nash conducted himself very well during his visit to Sweden and later gave a talk at Uppsala on “the possibility that the universe isn’t expanding.” He returned to Princeton to resume life with Alicia—not remarried but comfortable. He was, however, disappointed by the failure of his son John Charles Nash to recover from his own illness.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist. CCCXLVIII, September 12, 1998, p. S11.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 15, 1998, p. 94.

The New England Journal of Medicine. CCCXXXIX, July 16, 1998, p. 205.

New Scientist. CLIX, September 5, 1998, p. 48.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, April 23, 1998, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 14, 1998, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, May 11, 1998, p. 58.

The Sciences. XXXVIII, September, 1998, p. 35.

Technology Review. CI, July, 1998, p. 84.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, August 2, 1998, p. 1.

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