Nash takes a flight from New York to Los Angeles in 1950, his first ever journey in an airplane: he is to become a consultant for the RAND corporation, where Shapley had worked. “The original think tank,” RAND’s employees intended to “think the unthinkable,” coming up with unique solutions to problems of American military defense, ranging from “narrow technical problems” to broader discussions of strategy (often involving the atomic bomb). The Air Force, which originally contracted RAND, recruited scientists, offering them a private research center for the development of wide-ranging scientific studies. Even after the war, the military hoped to use scientists’ skills in operations research, linear programming, dynamic programming, systems analysis, and, perhaps most importantly, game theory, linking these fields to issues of military strategy.
RAND appeals to Nash as a research center that encourages cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research. Its scientists seek out solutions to problems that seem impossible or “unthinkable”: this is a guiding principle that Nash shares.
Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, just west of Los Angeles, RAND is a heavily guarded collection of buildings that “bristled with self-confidence, a sense of mission”: in 1949, President Truman informed Americans that Russia had developed the atomic bomb, and RAND was prepared to respond to the Soviets’ advances in nuclear weaponry. RAND scientists “worshipped” the rational, believing that all choices could be reduced to solutions in the form of mathematical formulae.
The RAND scientists, like Nash, believed that mathematical ideas, particularly game theory, could be applied to all areas of life, from human relationships to questions of global interactions. Though this belief wreaks havoc in Nash’s own life—since he struggles to view his relationships realistically and emotionally, rather than as games—it is also fundamental to the development of game theory as a field with broad applications.
RAND is pervaded by an “atmosphere of paranoia and intimidation.” Nash, who works on “highly theoretical exercises” instead of actual issues of military strategy, is not approved for top-secret clearance, and as the Cold War continues, fears about potential leaks and security breaches grow. At the same time, RAND’s employees tend to be “quirky people”; the think tank fosters a culture of practical jokes and informal chatter, especially among the mathematicians. John Williams, a RAND astronomer, oversees the affable, somewhat disorganized atmosphere. Williams believes that the scientists need a freer schedule—fewer strict impositions—and negotiates with engineers and Air Force generals to ensure that his mathematicians have free reign over their research. Nash is well known in the RAND offices as a “young genius who can do anything, a guy who likes solving problems.” Nonetheless, he mostly keeps to himself, though his odd, sometimes childish behavior attracts attention.
Later in his life, after beginning to experience schizophrenic episodes, Nash would become highly paranoid, convinced that he was being followed by spies. It is possible that the “atmosphere of paranoia” he experienced at RAND contributed to these delusions—one of many ways in which Nash’s academic experiences overlapped with his experience of mental illness. At the same time, RAND offered Nash the opportunity to conduct innovative research, seeking out answers to the kinds of difficult, complex problems he found most engaging.