Sylvia Nasar, an economics journalist working for the New York Times, first hears about the story of John Nash, an acclaimed mathematician whose career was derailed by schizophrenia, from a Princeton University professor whom she is interviewing for an article. Intrigued, Nasar decides to pursue the story of Nash, who was a rising star in the field of game theory—an area of mathematics with applications to economics and human behavior—before he began experiencing psychotic episodes in his early 30s.
Nasar tracks Nash’s humble beginnings in Bluefield, West Virginia, where he was a bookish child whose eccentricity made him a social outcast. She follows his story to Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he attends college at the height of World War II. Nash’s talents as a mathematician are discovered and encouraged by his professors at the Carnegie Institute, and he goes on to attend the PhD program in math at Princeton University. It is at Princeton that Nash develops his most famous contribution to game theory—a mathematical field that studies interactions, decisions, and strategy among rational actors, with applications to many social sciences—which served as the basis of his graduate dissertation. This is the “Nash equilibrium,” which attempts to describe how two players or individuals in a game or conflict might interact, given that individuals do not always make decisions out of self-interest, but often cooperate, acting in ways that take their opponents’ decisions into account.
Despite Nash’s clear genius and propensity for innovative thinking—which sets him apart from other Princeton graduate students and allows him to make groundbreaking discoveries—Nash is also deeply troubled. Intensely independent and self-assured since childhood, Nash can be awkward or even downright cruel in his interactions with others, and he often regards his relationships with his peers as “games,” applying his own research to his social life. Throughout his life, Nash is attracted to a number of young men, many of them mathematicians, though these affairs are usually fleeting. He is eventually arrested for lewd (and likely homosexual) conduct during a police sting in Santa Monica, where he is employed as a summer research analyst for RAND, a Navy-sponsored think tank specializing in military strategy.
Nash later becomes an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is nicknamed “the Kid Professor”: his eccentricity and arrogance earn him both the respect and ire of his students and colleagues. In Cambridge, Nash meets and dates Eleanor Stier, a nurse, who becomes pregnant and gives birth to their son, John David Stier. Nash also has a torrid affair with Jack Bricker, a gifted young graduate student at MIT. Later, he begins a romance with Alicia Larde, another MIT student, though he conceals his relationship with Eleanor from her. Eventually, Nash and Alicia marry, and Alicia becomes pregnant.
Around this time, Nash’s behavior becomes markedly more bizarre and disturbing, and he starts to imagine that “men in red neckties” are following him around the MIT campus. Nash is committed to a psychiatric institute in Massachusetts, where he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Alicia gives birth to their son while Nash is in the hospital, though he is released shortly after the birth.
Around this time, Nash decides to resign his MIT professorship in order to move to Europe, hoping to shed his American citizenship and become a “citizen of the world.” Unable to obtain refugee status in a number of European countries, he returns to Princeton and is hospitalized several more times, since his delusions continue to recur; he then moves to Boston, then to Roanoke, Virginia, where his family lives. Overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for her very sick husband, Alicia obtains a divorce from him.
Eventually, Nash ends up in Princeton again, where he becomes the “Phantom of Fine Hall,” an enigmatic figure who haunts the classrooms in which he used to study, scribbling obscure equations on blackboards. Unbeknownst to Nash, his contributions to game theory are beginning to gain significant traction in the world of economics, and in 1994, he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics—a controversial decision, given his fragile mental health and the 30-year hiatus he took from research.
In the 1990s, Nash slowly begins to recover from his schizophrenic episodes and enters a period of remission, which he credits to a careful, conscious process of “reorganizing” his own thinking: separating delusion from reality. He is given a research post at Princeton, and he reunites with Alicia and many of his former colleagues. Most importantly, he learns to value his relationships with others, becoming a kinder, more caring man—one who still possesses a brilliant, “beautiful” mind.