Alumni | Dec. 10
Since the 2001 release of “A Beautiful Mind,” millions have discovered Princeton and learned about one of its most renowned figures through the movie, which brings viewers through the tumultuous life of a famously brilliant — and famously schizophrenic — mathematician: John Nash GS ’50.
But for the Nobel Prize-winning subject, the movie was not entertainment. “I wasn’t able to appreciate and enjoy it in the manner others did,” said Nash, 82. “I viewed it with more of an analytical, critical eye because it related directly to me.”
Understanding Nash now, as then, is complicated. Most students, and even faculty members, know him mostly through lore, hearing stories from those who have spotted the so-called “Phantom of Fine Hall” on campus. His name evokes an earlier generation of 1940s academics who debated dissertations over afternoon teas. He is a participant in the campus community, but also has been an observer of the campus for more than six decades.
Despite the mystique, Nash lives a fairly typical life for an older academic. He occasionally works with students, maintains an office in Fine Hall, occasionally eats meals in Frist Campus Center and lives with his wife and son just a few blocks from campus. And though his past has been the focus of a prize-winning novel and an Academy-Award-winning movie, Nash considers his academic work today his most important. Though “A Beautiful Mind” portrays a Nash mired in turmoil, the Nash of today lives a quiet, stable life.
A legendary life
Despite his legacy in the field of mathematics, Nash originally planned to major in chemical engineering because it was “the more practical career,” he said. But he later changed his mind, graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology — now Carnegie Mellon University — with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematics in just three years.
The Nobel laureate paused when asked about his personal story and milestones before reflecting on his story. “For me, it’s psychologically difficult to think of milestones,” Nash said. “I did pass through times of mental illness.”
Despite the years he spent recovering, Nash’s time at Princeton as a graduate student left pleasant memories. The atmosphere on campus changed over time, Nash said.
“At the graduate college, I was introduced to D-Bar,” Nash recollected. “That didn’t exist before my time. Before my time, grad students were supposed to wear academic gowns for tradition.”
The former Fine Hall, which is now Jones Hall, also holds fond memories. “I remember when Werner Heisenberg was on campus as a visiting lecturer,” Nash chuckled. “There was a rumor about a scribble in a toilet stall in old Frist about something like ‘Heisenberg may have been here.’”
It was during his time at Princeton that Nash wrote his 27-page dissertation on non-cooperative games, published in 1950, which contained ideas that revolutionized mathematics and formed the basis of the Nash Equilibrium. That groundbreaking concept describes a state where players in a game have each chosen a move in which no players can improve their position by changing strategy. Such situations arise in board games, but also in business, nature and war.
After receiving his doctorate, Nash had a brief stint as an instructor at the University, as well as another short-term position as a consultant at the RAND Corporation, a think tank, before taking a teaching position at MIT, where he had his most productive years as a math professor and researcher. He returned to Princeton in 1957, this time as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Just two years later, he was committed to a psychiatric institute in Massachusetts, though his late-onset schizophrenia continued to plague him for decades. In the 1970s, he was back at Princeton, as an aloof figure quietly conducting research. He was eventually offered a position as a senior research mathematician and an office in Fine Hall, where he still conducts research today.
It was in 1994 that Nash rose to mainstream prominence, after winning the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in recognition of his doctoral research at Princeton nearly half a century earlier. Shortly after receiving the award, author Sylvia Nasar approached him about writing a biography. But Nash declined because “it wasn’t the right time,” he said.
Nasar went ahead with her book project without Nash’s help and in 1998 published “A Beautiful Mind,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for biography. By 2001, Ron Howard was shooting a movie based on the story, with Russell Crowe starring as the mathematician. For this project, Nash signed off and received a payment.
The film, a box office success that also won four Academy Awards, solidified Nash’s place in the national consciousness.
Two scenes born in Howard’s imagination have stuck with many viewers for years. They are also the most memorable ones for Nash.
“The pen ceremony, although it was an invention of the screen writer, seems to be a popular scene,” Nash recalled, referring to a scene where faculty members give their pens to Nash to recognize his achievements in mathematics. “And the part about going strategically for brunettes in the bar — although it wasn’t true, either.”
“The movie is not a documentary,” Nash said. “We didn’t want something that would be necessarily facts, all facts, and only facts.”
A lasting legacy
According to former economics professor Avinash Dixit, “a large percentage, approximately 60–70 percent, of modern economics research is game-theoretic in nature. That’s the natural way to think about economics.”
Nash’s work is similarly prominent in political science. “In many of the fields in political science — policy making, domestics, international politics, politics in trade, or understanding how politics differ across countries — the theories are an adaptation of the Nash equilibrium. It is impossible to talk of a political theory without talking of the Nash Equilibrium,” noted politics professor Adam Meirowitz, who has written a graduate textbook on game theory based on Nash’s original research.
But, despite its fame, the Nash Equilibrium is not Nash’s favorite work. That distinction goes to his research on real algebraic manifolds, which showed that certain types of surfaces can be represented algebraically. Nash also developed this proof as a graduate student.
“It has a nice character,” Nash said fondly of his work on this project, which was “quite different from the cooperative and non-cooperative game theory.”
Two terms in algebraic geometry bear his name, the “Nash function” and “Nash manifold,” recognizing his seminal paper in the field in 1952.
Nash said he does not mind that his name will always be associated with game theory. “The most important work for someone may be the work used many times by others,” Nash said. “But I don’t make the judgment; I’d just have to accept the reality of what is influential.”
And of course, for those outside of academia, Nash may be best known for being the title character in a movie that gave a face to schizophrenia, a disease that is estimated to affect one in 200 people over their lifetime.
Yet director Ron Howard took creative liberties in depicting Nash’s illness. “The ideas in schizophrenia do not take a visual form,” Nash explained. “If anything, it’s more auditory hallucination and you may hear voices. But really, it’s the ideas — that seem illogical to others — that define the illness.”
Nash plays a subtle role in academics today as a quiet presence in the Princeton community.
When politics professor Adam Meirowitz first learned of Nash in an undergraduate game theory class, he knew nothing about the man behind the math. “I wasn’t even sure he was alive when I was a grad student,” Meirowitz admitted. Now the political science professor introduces Nash Equilibrium in his undergraduate course on game theory by mentioning Nash’s ties with Princeton.
Though he mentions Nash’s place in Princeton’s history to his classes and conducts research in a field built around his work, Meirowitz has yet to get to know Nash on a personal level. Other than occasional appearances at academic conferences or seminars, Nash mostly keeps to his family.
“Every time I’ve seen [Nash], he’s been with his son,” said Meirowitz. “He must be very involved with his family.”
“Some days I have to more or less abandon my professional life,” Nash said, so that he can spend more time with his family.
Alex Kontorovich ’02, now a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies, is one of the few students who knew Nash as an undergraduate, having served as the Nobel laureate’s research assistant.
After graduating, Kontorovich has regularly returned to campus to visit with Nash. “It’s interesting. We’d go for lunch at Frist, and there would be a bunch of students sitting around. Most people don’t recognize him, but when they do, there’s a wave that goes through the room,” Kontorovich said.
David Lee ’12 is one of those students who recognized Nash. After identifying the mathematician eating in the Frist gallery, Lee went upstairs to find a marker, he recalled. He ran back downstairs and asked Nash to sign his backpack. Nash seemed pleasantly surprised but politely declined, offering instead to sign a book if he brought one to his office.
Some of Nash’s fans are less polite.
Kontorovich had known to keep the nature of his work quiet since Ron Howard’s film crew showed up on campus. The reaction he received when he would casually mentioned with whom he was working was overwhelming, he said.
Kontorovich was most taken aback by one visitor who came to Nash’s office shortly after the release of “A Beautiful Mind.” A man, who was clearly not a student at the University, burst through the doors, claiming that he urgently needed to see Nash. He claimed that he knew exactly what Nash’s mental illness entailed and how it could be fixed.
Famed for his frequent visits to Small World Coffee, Nash has also been spotted at Frist and at the Dinky station, walking home. While he is aware of the student attention, not all of them “make themselves noticed,” Nash said.
Despite his limited interaction with the students, Nash has kept an eye on the academic environment on campus, including problems that could be approached through applying the Nash Equilibrium.
“The issue seems to be grade deflation at the moment,” Nash commented. “And I don’t know what the end will be.” He said the University should have a “dual system” in which students get both a letter grade and a ranking in class. The final grade for the students would be determined by both grades, which incorporate both “absolute and artistic” information on grading, Nash said.
It is unclear whether Nash’s current research will yield any mathematical breakthroughs, though he still hopes “to achieve something of value through my current studies or with any new ideas that come in the future.”
One of his current areas of research is game theory as it relates to cooperative games such as the prisoner’s dilemma.
Yet the mathematician is wary to speculate about his future plans. “I’m going on step by step, even though I am old,” he said. “I shouldn’t have a future plan I would have if I were 40 or 30 years old. I don’t know how long the road ahead of me is.”