On Nash’s second day at Princeton, Solomon Lefschetz, a Princeton math professor, gathers the math graduate students for a meeting. An infamously grouchy professor, Lefschetz orders the graduate students to “dress well” and to come to tea with the math faculty every afternoon: Lefschetz’s strict rules are intended to turn out “men who [can] make original and important discoveries.” At Princeton, courses were hardly important: only qualifying exams mattered, and students who did not perform well were simply asked to leave the program. As it turns out, this sort of training is uniquely suited to Nash’s temperament; when he left Princeton, he did so “with his independence, ambition, and originality intact.”
Though Princeton encouraged its mathematicians to form a community, it also encouraged them to become independent thinkers and shied away from imposing strict guidelines on their behavior as graduate students. Princeton helped to shape Nash’s own intense independence and unbounded ambition.
Nash lives in the Graduate College at Princeton, where life is “masculine, monastic, and scholarly”: few of the graduate students interact with women, since women cannot yet attend Princeton. During the afternoon tea sessions, the graduate students meet to discuss math, but also to gossip and exchange news, creating a friendly but competitive atmosphere. Nash has never experienced “anything like this exotic little mathematical hothouse,” which came to shape his career as well as his approach to academia.
Princeton’s friendly but insular and competitive atmosphere contributed to Nash’s own competitive behavior, which he displayed throughout his career—often challenging others and sparking intense conflict.