Young math and physics majors studying at Princeton in the 1970s would often catch a glimpse of a mysterious man, a “wraith,” writing on chalkboards in New Fine Hall, the new math building, before classes. This is Nash, now known as the “Phantom” of Fine Hall, rumored to be a mathematical genius who “flipped” while giving a lecture—or, in other variants of the urban legend, after learning that his wife left him for a mathematical rival, or that another mathematician achieved a result that he had hoped to discover. The “Phantom” serves as a cautionary figure for students who “lacked social graces,” and few students communicate with the “Phantom,” though they mostly leave him alone.
As Nash returns to Princeton and begins to tentatively reenter the academic world, he becomes known as the “Phantom of Fine Hall.” The rumors that circulate about Nash are mostly fictitious, though they have some truth to them. In many ways, Nash’s worst fears have been confirmed: he has been “ostracized,” turned into a pariah and a “cautionary figure.” Nash seems doomed to remain in obscurity forever, trapped by the delusions generated by his own mind.
The messages Nash leaves on seminar room blackboards range from nonsensical to humorous to purely mathematical. Nash has also become obsessed with numerology, which seems to provide him with a sense of order—allowing him to “make sense out of chaos.” Princeton provides a “therapeutic community” for Nash, offering him intellectual sustenance and human comfort he hadn’t experienced in Virginia. Nash’s abilities in math seem relatively unchanged: he begins writing an algorithm for a certain type of arithmetic, “base 26 arithmetic,” that involves tedious calculations and complicated mathematical thinking. He also begins to learn how to use computers and often spends time in the main library’s reference room, leading him to become known as “the mad genius of Firestone.” In 1978, Nash wins the John von Neumann Theory Prize from the Operations Research Society and the Institute for Management Science, though he is not invited to the prize ceremony.
Re-immersing himself in the Princeton community proves helpful to Nash’s recovery. At Princeton, Nash is given the opportunity to resume his research, which helps him to return to rational thinking and restore his connection to reality. But given his fragile health, Nash is still seen as a liability. Though he is awarded a prestigious prize for work he completed earlier in his career, he is not allowed to attend the prize ceremony: other faculty members are worried that Nash will “make a scene” at the event.