John Forbes Nash, Jr., a mathematician who rode the line between genius and madness all the way to a Nobel Prize, died Saturday in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike at the age of 86, along with his wife, Alicia, 82.
Nash developed a theory of non-cooperative games known as the “Nash equilibrium.” Published in 1950, the deceptively simple theory became a tool of staggering significance, with applications in fields ranging from economics to evolutionary biology.
In recognition, Nash was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Science, an award he shared with game theorists Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi.
Nash’s rise in his field, his struggles with mental illness, and his reemergence as a respected scholar were chronicled in Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning 2002 film A Beautiful Mind.
Born on June 13, 1928 in Bluefield, West Virginia, Nash was recognizable early on as a prodigy – and not an easy one for his public school teachers. Nash’s biographer, Sylvia Nasar, wrote in 1994, “He read constantly. He played chess. He whistled entire Bach melodies.”
To supplement his education, his parents gave him books and encyclopedias, and in his last year of high school, arranged for him to take advanced math courses at a local community college.
Nash attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) on a full scholarship. Initially he majored in chemical engineering, but switched to mathematics. He received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in 1948, and accepted a scholarship to Princeton University to pursue his doctorate.
His former CIT professor Richard Duffin wrote Nash a letter of recommendation consisting of one sentence: “This man is a genius.”
It was during his time at Princeton that Nash began working on his equilibrium theory.
Nash was a tenured professor at MIT with a pregnant wife in 1959, when the first signs of mental illness became apparent. He was admitted to McLean Hospital, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Hospitalizations alternated with periods of homelessness and international wanderings until 1970, when he was discharged from his final stay at the hospital. His wife had divorced him, but she continued to give him emotional support and allowed him to stay in her home. They later remarried.
Nash was treated with antipsychotics and a brutal round of 30 insulin shock treatments, but after 1970 he never used medication again.
Ultimately, he said, remission was a matter of will: “I don’t remember the chronology very well, exactly when I moved from one type of thinking to another. I began arguing with the concept of voices, and ultimately I began rejecting them, deciding not to listen.”
Recovery from mental illness was a long, gradual process.
“To some extent, sanity is a form of conformity,” he said. “People are always selling the idea that people who have mental illness are suffering. But it’s really not so simple. I think madness can be an escape, also” – one he admitted he sometimes missed. “Rational thought imposes a limit on one’s relationship to the cosmos,” he explained.
The crash that ended John and Alicia Nash’s lives happened around 4:30 p.m. near Monroe Township, New Jersey, when the taxi cab they were riding in tried to pass another car, went out of control and hit a guard rail, according to NJ Advance Media. The Nashes were thrown from the vehicle upon impact. They were pronounced dead at the scene.
The taxi driver, identified as Tarek Girgis, was flown to a New Brunswick hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. No charges were filed immediately, and the crash is under investigation.
After learning of Saturday’s car crash, Russell Crowe, who portrayed Nash in the movie, posted on Twitter, “An amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”