June 23 2018
8:11 PM
More Stories
Page width:
'Beautiful Mind' mathematician John Nash, wife killed in car crash

Sunday May 24, 2015    1:41 PM

John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician whose life story inspired the movie A Beautiful Mind, and his wife, Alicia Nash, were killed Saturday afternoon in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike, New Jersey State Police said.

Nash, 86, and Alicia Nash, 82, were riding in a taxi near Monroe Township when the incident occurred, State Police Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Williams said.

They were traveling southbound in the left lane when the taxi went out of control while trying to pass another car, Williams said.

The car crashed into the guard rail, and the couple was ejected from the vehicle. They were pronounced dead at the scene, Williams said.

The taxi driver, Tarek Girgis, was flown to Robert Wood Johnson hospital with injuries not considered life-threatening. A passenger in the other car was transported by ground to hospital complaining of neck pain.

No charges have been filed in the accident, which is still under investigation, Williams said.

In high school, he stumbled across E.T. Bell's book, "Men of Mathematics," and soon demonstrated his own mathematical skill by independently proving a classic Fermat theorem, an accomplishment he recalled in an autobiographical essay written for the Nobel committee.

Intending to become an engineer like his father, he entered Carnegie Mellon (then called Carnegie Institute of Technology). But he chafed at the regimented courses, and encouraged by professors who recognized his mathematical genius, he switched to mathematics.

Receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees at Carnegie, he arrived at Princeton in 1948, a time of great expectations, when American children still dreamed of growing up to be physicists like Einstein or mathematicians like the brilliant, Hungarian-born polymath John von Neumann, both of whom attended the afternoon teas at Fine Hall, the home of the math department.

John Nash, tall and good-looking, quickly became known for his intellectual arrogance, his odd habits — he paced the halls, walked off in the middle of conversations, whistled incessantly — and his fierce ambition, his colleagues have recalled.

He invented a game, known as Nash, that became an obsession in the Fine Hall common room. (The same game, invented independently in Denmark, was later sold by Parker Brothers as Hex.) He also took on a problem left unsolved by Dr. von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, the pioneers of game theory, in their now classic book, "Theory of Games and Economic Behavior."

Dr. von Neumann and Dr. Morgenstern, an economist at Princeton, addressed only so-called zero-sum games, in which one player's gain is another's loss. But most real world interactions are more complicated, where players' interests are not directly opposed, and there are opportunities for mutual gain. Dr. Nash's solution, contained in a 27-page doctoral thesis he wrote when he was 21, provided a way of analyzing how each player could maximize his benefits, assuming that the other players would also act to maximize their self-interest.

This deceptively simple extension of game theory paved the way for economic theory to be applied to a wide variety of other situations besides the marketplace.

"It was a very natural discovery," Dr. Kuhn said. "A variety of people would have come to the same results at the same time, but John did it and he did it on his own."

After receiving his doctorate at Princeton, Dr. Nash served as a consultant for the RAND Corporation and as an instructor at M.I.T. and still had a penchant for attacking problems that no one else could solve. On a dare, he developed an entirely original approach to a longstanding problem in differential geometry, showing that abstract geometric spaces called Riemannian manifolds could be squished into arbitrarily small pieces of Euclidean space.

As his career flourished and his reputation grew, however, Dr. Nash's personal life became increasingly complex. A turbulent romance with a nurse in Boston, Eleanor Stier, resulted in the birth of a son, John David Stier, in 1953. Dr. Nash also had a series of relationships with men, and while at RAND in the summer of 1954, he was arrested in a men's bathroom for indecent exposure, according to Ms. Nasar's biography. And doubts about his accomplishments gnawed at him: two of mathematics' highest honors, the Putnam competition and the Fields medal, had eluded him.

In 1957, after two years of on-and-off courtship, he married Alicia Larde, an M.I.T. physics major from an aristocratic Central American family and one of only 16 women in the class of 1955.

Early in 1959, with Alicia pregnant with their son, John, Dr. Nash began to unravel. His brilliance turned malignant, leading him into a landscape of paranoia and delusion, and in April, he was hospitalized at McLean Hospital, outside Boston, sharing the psychiatric ward with, among others, the poet Robert Lowell.

It was the first step of a steep decline. There were more hospitalizations. He underwent electroshock therapy and fled for a while to Europe, sending cryptic postcards to colleagues and family members. For many years he roamed the Princeton campus, a lonely figure scribbling unintelligible formulas on the same blackboards in Fine Hall where he had once demonstrated startling mathematical feats.

Though game theory was gaining in prominence, and his work cited ever more frequently and taught widely in economics courses around the world, Dr. Nash had vanished from the professional world.

"He hadn't published a scientific paper since 1958," Ms. Nasar wrote in the 1994 Times article. "He hadn't held an academic post since 1959. Many people had heard, incorrectly, that he had had a lobotomy. Others, mainly those outside of Princeton, simply assumed that he was dead."

Indeed, Dr. Myerson recalled in a telephone interview that one scholar who wrote to Dr. Nash in the 1980s to ask permission to reprint an article received the letter back with one sentence scrawled across it: "You may use my article as if I were dead." Nash, widely regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, was known for his work in game theory, and his personal struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. Alicia Nash, an MIT physics major from an aristocratic Salvadoran family, has been credited with saving his life after schizophrenia derailed his career in the 1960s, letting him into her home and looking after him even after they divorced in 1963.

As the couple's biographer, Sylvia Nasar, wrote in the 1998 book "A Beautiful Mind," "It was Nash's genius ... to choose a woman who would prove so essential to his survival."

That chapter of their relationship did not make it into the Hollywood version of their life, the 2001 Oscar-winning film "A Beautiful Mind" starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. The film, which has been called "a piece of historical revisionism," also left out his child from a previous relationship and glossed over his reputation for being difficult to work with. But it drew accolades for its depiction of mental illness while bringing attention to Nash's accomplishments, which earned him the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Nash called the film an "artistic" interpretation based on his life of how mental illness could evolve -- one that did not "describe accurately" the nature of his delusions or treatment. Unlike Crowe's character, who comes to rely on medication for treatment, Nash said in a 1994 interview it had been decades since he had taken medication.

He spoke of mental illness as often having "an unfavorable course with history in the sense that people never really recovered to what you can call mentally well. They become what are called consumers of mental health organizations. They are always taking some sort of a pill."

News of the couple's deaths drew tributes from academia and Hollywood.

"We are stunned and saddened by news of the untimely passing of John Nash and his wife and great champion, Alicia. Both of them were very special members of the Princeton University community," Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said.

"John's remarkable achievements inspired generations of mathematicians, economists and scientists who were influenced by his brilliant, groundbreaking work in game theory, and the story of his life with Alicia moved millions of readers and moviegoers who marveled at their courage in the face of daunting challenges," Eisgruber added.

"RIP Brilliant #NobelPrize winning John Nash & and his remarkable wife Alicia. It was an honor telling part of their story #ABeautifulMind," director Ron Howard tweeted.

Crowe expressed condolences to the family on Twitter, calling the couple an "amazing partnership" with "beautiful minds" and "beautiful hearts."

Photo: John Nash and wife Alicia Nash in 2012.
Photo 2: John Nash and wife Alicia Nash wedding photo.