John Nash is sitting in a hospital lounge with a visitor, also a mathematician, George Mackey, on a weekday afternoon in May 1959. Mackey asks Nash how he, as a mathematician, “a man devoted to reason and logical proof,” could believe that extraterrestrials were sending him messages. Nash looks directly at Mackey and says that the ideas he had about extraterrestrials came to him “the same way” his ideas about math did, and as a result, he “took them seriously.”
Throughout the biography, Nasar suggests that Nash’s skills as a thinker and his desire to find meaning in all aspects of life made him both a brilliant scholar and more susceptible to schizophrenic delusions. These two apparently separate regions of his life, math and mental illness, were in fact merged.
Over the course of a decade, from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, Nash, a man from Bluefield, West Virginia, became “the most remarkable mathematician of the second half of the century.” Nash’s genius as a mathematician was similar to the genius of artists: he experienced “visions” about mathematical problems that allowed him to construct solutions, though the methods he used for these solutions remained mysterious to others who tried to follow them. Nash was also highly independent and “disdainful of authority.” He did not follow other mathematicians and preferred to subscribe solely to his own brand of “rationality and the power of pure thought,” hoping to turn all of life’s decisions, no matter how big or small, into “calculations of advantage and disadvantage.”
Again, Nasar links Nash’s genius to his mental illness, describing the “visions” he experienced as both a mathematician and an individual suffering from schizophrenia. Intensely private and independent, Nash’s methods of mathematical reasoning could seem obscure to others—just as Nash’s paranoid delusions, though real to him, seemed inscrutable or incomprehensible to his friends, family, and colleagues.
Nash’s contemporaries found him “immensely strange,” and his aloof manner set him apart from his peers. Yet his achievements in game theory, algebraic geometry, and nonlinear theory—applicable to understanding dynamics of human rivalry—were some of the most significant ideas of the 20th century. John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born mathematician, paved the way for Nash’s ideas as the first academic to suggest that human behavior could be analyzed as a game, using poker as a point of comparison. Nash postulated that games could be solved when every player chose a response that he or she thought was the best response to the other players’ best strategies. This is the basis of the Nash equilibrium, which forever changed the guiding principles of economics.
Ironically, though Nash was highly independent and “strange” compared to other mathematicians—an aloof loner of sorts—his research focused on the community (specifically, interdependent decisions among group members). After his illness, Nash would seek to reconnect to communities from which he had cut himself off: his family, friends, and colleagues in mathematics.
By his late 20s, Nash was a successful mathematician: he was also married and a father. But like other famous scientists and philosophers—Descartes, Wittgenstein, Kant, Newton, Einstein—he had a solitary, detached personality, the kind that is often attributed to genius. However, “men of scientific genius, however eccentric, rarely become truly insane.” Nash was an exception. When he turned 30 and went up for tenure as a professor at MIT, he began to experience schizophrenic episodes. He eventually resigned his position and was committed to a psychiatric institution, the first of numerous hospitalizations throughout his life.
Nasar notes that “men of genius,” though often eccentric, do not usually become “truly insane,” though Nash’s eccentricity devolved into delusion and psychosis—showing that mental acuity can exist alongside mental illness.
Schizophrenia was first described in 1806, but its origins in the human mind are uncertain. 1% of the population in the world suffers from the disease, though it is unclear whether schizophrenia develops from hereditary or environmental factors, or a combination of the two. Eugen Bleuler coined the term “schizophrenia” in 1908 to refer to the “splitting of psychic functions”: those who are schizophrenic experience delusions and hear voices, among other psychotic symptoms, though the severity of these symptoms varies wildly from person to person. Many schizophrenia sufferers have been “people with fine minds,” and some even experience episodes of mental “heightening.” Indeed, at the beginning of his illness, Nash believed “he was on the brink of cosmic insights.”
Nasar provides a scientific explanation of schizophrenia, describing its uncertain origins and wide range of symptoms. Again, Nasar makes clear the idea that individuals with mental illnesses are not necessarily mentally impaired: in fact, they may often be gifted thinkers with powerful talents, and, like Nash, their minds may seem even sharper while they are in the throes of the illness.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Nash became a “phantom” who haunted Princeton, New Jersey, where he settled (and where he had obtained his PhD), often writing obscure equations on classroom blackboards after hours. At the same time, his work on game theory was becoming influential in the field of economics; many mathematicians and economists assumed that the “Nash” of the “Nash equilibrium” was dead. Yet Nash was also beginning to show signs of recovery. He interacted with other Princeton mathematicians at the Institute for Advanced Study, a research center also based in Princeton, and corresponded with famous mathematicians by mail, tentatively venturing back into the world of research.
Nash was well-known to members of the Princeton community as a seemingly unstable man, a “ghost” who haunted the math department. However, Nash’s skills as a brilliant mathematician never faded. After a hiatus of 30 years, in which he was unable to engage rationally with the world, his reappearance at Princeton marked the beginning of his remission from schizophrenia and the recovery of his “beautiful mind.”
In 1994, after attending a Princeton math seminar (Nash was regularly invited to these seminars, though he was not technically affiliated with the university), Nash’s close friend, Harold Kuhn, a Princeton math professor, told Nash that he could expect a phone call from the Swedish Academy of Sciences the next day, informing him that he had won a Nobel Prize.
The Nobel Prize was the pinnacle of Nash’s career, confirming his talents as a mathematician—despite the years he lost to schizophrenia—and helping to restore him to a position of prominence in the math world.