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Nash's death makes you think again

  • Author:Corina Zhang
  • Release on :2017-02-23

Most academics spend their lifetime craving to leave one lasting contribution to their field. By the age of 30, John Nash, who died at 86 in a weekend road accident along with his wife Alicia, had made discoveries that would revolutionise two disciplines and secure him both the Nobel Prize in economics and its equivalent for mathematics, the Abel Prize.

His doctoral thesis at Princeton, a slender 32-page document completed when he was just 21, placed game theory, the study of strategic interactions pioneered by mathematician John von Neumann, at the heart of economics.

After Nash, economists stopped thinking exclusively about unrealistic models of perfectly competitive markets and began focusing on cases in which each agent has to consider the actions of rivals.

The concept of the “Nash equilibrium”, which he invented, changed the way we look at the choice by companies to advertise or by governments to stock a nuclear arsenal. While both decisions can appear wasteful, individuals still take them in response to what they think their opponents will do.

“John Nash’s definition of the Nash equilibrium was for the social sciences what the discovery of the DNA structure by James Watson and Francis Crick was for biology,” said Roger Myerson, a fellow Nobel laureate in economics. “It was one of the most important contributions in the history of economic thought.”
Born on June 13 1928 in Bluefield, West Virginia, after receiving his doctorate Nash joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he proceeded to solve problems in the field of partial differential equations that had confounded mathematicians for years.
“I recall a seminar where he proved one of his outstanding results,” said Joseph Kohn, a maths professor at Princeton who knew Nash for more than 60 years. “Even the most distinguished professors of the department could not believe what they saw.”
At MIT Nash met Alicia, from El Salvador, who would soon become his wife. She would also be the rock of his existence when, in 1959, Nash was stricken by schizophrenia, which would plague him for more than 20 years. As paranoia and delusional episodes intensified, he underwent repeated spells of hospital stays. He had to stop working and engaged in seemingly random actions, including a trip to Europe where he tried to relinquish his US citizenship.

His wife divorced him in 1963 but then chose to let him live in her house near Princeton as a lodger (they remarried). Nash became a familiar figure across the Princeton campus, wandering around and leaving mysterious formulas on classroom blackboards.

The genius turned into the “Phantom of Fine Hall”, as he became known.

Just like when a mathematical intuition mysteriously materialises, Nash’s brain suddenly began to heal. “I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists,” he wrote in an autobiographical account for the Nobel Foundation when he won the award alongside John Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten in 1994.
Just as startlingly, academic recognition was followed by Hollywood glory. A biography by author Sylvia Nasar provided the basis for the plot of A Beautiful Mind, a blockbuster featuring Russell Crowe as Nash, which scooped four Academy Awards.

“He was initially sceptical about the movie,” says Eric Maskin, another Nobel laureate and a friend of the Nashes. “But he then realised that even though the movie was mostly fiction, it brought issues which he cared about such as game theory and schizophrenia into the public domain.”

The prodigy who had earlier abounded in intellectual arrogance learnt to deal graciously with his newfound fame. Prof Maskin remembers how a decade ago, Nash was about to give a highly technical talk to a packed auditorium. “Aren’t you pleased with all this public?” he was asked. “They did not come here to see me,” Nash said. “They came here to see Russell Crowe.” Ferdinando Giugliano

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