Four years ago this month, famed mathematician John Nash was killed along with his wife Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Larde, in a car accident in New Jersey.
While some of us may remember John Nash from the portrayal of his person in the movie A Beautiful Mind, the movie could not do justice to the work and contributions Nash had to the fields of game theory, differential geometry and partial differential equations. Today, his theories are used in a seemingly unending list of specializations – computing, economics, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, accounting, politics and military theory. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Memorial Peace Prize in Economic Sciences, and is best known for his discovery of the “Nash Equilibrium.”
But somewhere between his beginning years as a budding mathematician, and his incredible success as a Nobel laureate, Nash was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He battled with this mental illness, and spent time in and out of psychiatric facilities. Each time, after he had been hospitalized for a period, he would renounce his “delusional hypotheses”, go back to a more balanced mental state, and make progress in his mathematical research. And with the support of family members, colleagues, friends, and most importantly – his wife – Nash had figured out a way to cope with his illness, without the use of medicine.
Nash’s story is so striking to me because it displays a clear struggle with an illness that was generally not discussed. At the time (and even now) there were few people in the spotlight who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. For him to learn how to cope with his diagnosis while in the public eye, remaining successful in his field, is virtually unheard of. And rereading the many tributes on his life and work today, he is a reminder that we all have our demons, we all have our struggles, and we can all have our redemption too. Nash may be remembered for his diagnosis, but he will be revered and beloved for the contributions he made to the sciences, and the advancement of human knowledge.