On October 12, 1994, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences holds a press conference in Stockholm to announce the winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences: one of these winners is John Forbes, Nash, Jr., of Princeton, New Jersey. The Nobel Prize in Economics, as it is commonly known, was created 70 years after Alfred Nobel wrote his 1984 will, which created the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Though it is not technically a “Nobel Prize,” it is considered the ”ultimate symbol of excellence for scientists and laymen alike,” and it is awarded for specific achievements and discoveries.
Nash’s genius is finally recognized in 1994 when he receives the Nobel Prize in Economics, the highest distinction in the world awarded to scholars in the field of economics. After many years of obscurity, Nash’s achievements and contributions are acknowledged, and he is saved from a life of anonymity.
Nash’s name first appears as a candidate for a Nobel in the mid-1980s. Jorgen Weibull, a Swedish professor of economics, is tasked with presenting a report on Nash’s work to the Nobel Prize selection committee. Assar Lindbeck, Sweden’s most important economist and the chairman of the committee, asks Weibull to find out if is true that Nash stopped conducting game theory research in the early 1950s. In response, Weibull set up a meeting with Nash at Princeton in 1989. Weibull finds Nash nervous and quiet, but also clearly engaged and intelligent. In 1993, the prize committee decides to award the Nobel Prize to scholars who have made discoveries in the field of game theory. This Prize will be announced in 1994, the 50th anniversary of Neumann and Morgenstern’s great opus on game theory.
Weibull becomes Nash’s greatest advocate in the years leading up to 1994, as Nash is actively considered for the Nobel. Weibull realizes that despite Nash’s reputation—he is publicly known to have suffered a mental breakdown—he is also a gifted thinker who is deserving of the Nobel, and he sees Nash’s story as inspiring rather than disturbing.
The prize committee now has to decide which mathematicians will be honored for their contributions to game theory. Ultimately, the committee narrows the field down to contributions to the field of noncooperative theory: here, however, the debates became contentious. Nash’s reputation as a “ghost” at Princeton precedes him, and Ingemar Stahl, a professor of economics and law, expresses opposition to the idea of awarding the prize to him: Stahl informs the committee that Nash has a mental illness. Lindbeck, however, “knocked down” Stahl’s objections, though he, too, is concerned that Nash might act peculiarly at the Nobel Prize ceremony. Yet Lindbeck feels that awarding the prize to Nash—who had been “forgotten” by the academy—would help to “resurrect” him, paying tribute to the longevity and brilliance of his ideas.
Unlike Stahl, Lindbeck and Weibull see Nash’s Nobel as an opportunity for redemption. It will help to show him, and the world, the worth of his own work, despite the hardships he has faced. No Nobel Prize winner had experienced a decades-long hiatus in their career before Nash: Nash’s win is unprecedented, proving the profound importance and value of his work on game theory.
The economics prize has never been especially popular within the Swedish Academy, and many scientists and mathematicians have questioned the quality of Laureates over the years. The debate between Lindbeck and Stahl over Nash’s selection takes place against a backdrop of hostile relations within the academy: the economics prize is being transformed into a “social sciences” prize, and changes are being made to the organization of the selection committee, creating a fraught atmosphere among committee members.
Nasar suggests that Stahl’s objections to Nash winning the Nobel may have had more to do with the internal politics of the prize committee than Nash himself. Though Stahl highlights Nash’s mental illness, using it as a reason to contend that Nash does not deserve the prize, Stahl may have only been using this point as an excuse to express his own displeasure at the committee’s internal dilemmas.
In the end, Nash is selected by a handful of votes during an academy meeting in October 1994. The Nobel vote is a “ceremonial affair” in which academicians in the field gather to hear a lecture on the candidates’ contributions; during this session, Stahl questions the lecturer on the merits of the candidates as Laureates, including Nash, noting that Nash made his contribution to game theory—which Stahl considers “more mathematics than economics”—nearly half a century earlier. Lindbeck is stunned by Stahl’s public dissent, since Stahl had eventually conceded that the prize should be given to game theorists.
Nash wins the Nobel Prize, but just barely: Stahl’s unprecedented objections, which shock Lindbeck and the selection committee, nearly cost Nash the prize.
As a result of these tense negotiations, the announcement of the result—a prize shared by Nash, John Harsanyi, and Reinhard Selten—is delayed by one and a half hours. Nash is the last to be called of the three Laureates. He is woken up early in the morning by a phone call from the Nobel committee, and he receives the news in an “unusually calm” manner.
Nasar seems to regard this as one last obstacle in Nash’s tremendous career—a final struggle before he finally reaches the pinnacle for which he has been striving for many decades.