The life of John Forbes Nash Jr., the Princeton University mathematician who, along with his wife, Alicia, died 23 May in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike, was never lacking in drama. It was only last week that Nash stood before a crowd of well-wishers in Oslo as the Norwegian king, Harald V, presented Nash with the Abel Prize.
Nash had already won the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics for his work in game theory—an event that became the redemption scene in the 2001 biopic about Nash, A Beautiful Mind. But the Abel Prize celebrated Nash’s accomplishments in geometry, which Mikhail Gromov, another Abel Prize winner, described as “incomparably greater than what he has done in economics, by many orders of magnitude.”
I, too, was in Oslo last week, selected by the World Federation of Science Journalists to observe and report as Nash and his Abel co-laureate, Louis Nirenberg, a mathematician at New York University, received their awards. I worked my contacts and reported what I could. But frankly, I wasn’t surprised that my attempts at pitching the story to various media outlets were mostly in vain. Except for the Nobels, there is really not a lot of interest in prizes. That interest is vanishingly small when the prize, like this year’s Abels, was announced 2 months ago.
Now, tragically, last week’s ceremonies have taken on special significance: They turn out to be Nash’s final public appearances. The crowds were not disappointed. At 86, he had smoothed some of his legendary rough edges, but the brilliance and cheekiness that made him perhaps the world’s most famous living mathematician were still on display.
The Abel Prize was only recently established, in 2003, but it has already become a serious contender for the title of Nobel Prize in mathematics. (Alfred Nobel famously omitted an award for mathematics in his bequest.) Part of the reason for the Abel’s instant prestige is the $1 million or so that comes with it. Nash and Nirenberg shared the prize, and the cash, for “striking and seminal contributions,” to mathematics.
So despite Nash’s age and limited mobility, the Nashes traveled to Norway to collect the award in person. Nash also agreed to a punishing schedule of lectures and public appearances on behalf of his hosts. The couple was on their way home from the airport in a taxi when the fatal accident occurred.
The main chapters of Nash’s extraordinary life are well known: born in 1928, in Bluefield, West Virginia; recognized as a math genius in his early 20s; unhinged by mental illness for more than 3 decades soon after he turned 30; and somehow restored to sanity late in life (credit Alicia for that). Yet, as things turned out, he lived long enough to enjoy wide recognition for his work as a young man.
When I met him last week, he looked his age. His eye sockets were dark cavities, and he often seemed to be staring blankly into the middle distance. He walked with a slow shuffle, though without the support of a cane, and he spoke in a low, rasping voice that demanded close attention to be heard at all.
In spite of these concessions to age, Nash was still fluent in the language of some formidable mathematics. The day after the award presentation, he lectured about his recent fascination with cosmology to a packed audience at the University of Oslo. He spoke with practiced ease about the technical details of general relativity. And at times, some of the ambitious, even arrogant aspects of the young Nash still came through.
As Sylvia Nasar describes him in her biography that gave its title to the movie, Nash was a brash young graduate student at Princeton who made little attempt to hide his contempt for others whose gifts were not as extravagant as his own. His utter confidence in his own abilities was no less irritating for being well-grounded. “I’m a genius,” he proclaimed on more than one occasion.
At one public appearance last week, Nash was still referring to himself matter-of-factly as “a genius”—though at least he qualified it: “It’s a popular word,” he said, “and I’m not quite sure what it means.”
“It’s correct that [as a schoolboy] I didn’t shine in math,” he told the writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry, who interviewed him at a reception following the awards ceremony. “But that’s sort of like saying that Einstein didn’t shine in school in Germany.”
Nash still showed flashes of humor whenever he sensed a bubble of hot air rising nearby, along with a wicked desire to prick it. Asked about whether mathematics is more art than science, Nash replied with a story about the mid–20th century mathematician Emil Artin. “He liked to say it was an art,” Nash deadpanned. “Maybe it was because his name was Artin.”
“And how do you know,” Parry asked, “when you’re in the midst of a problem, that you’re on the right track?” “Well, you don’t know,” was Nash’s reply, to much appreciative laughter.
But perhaps his most revealing comments to Parry were his views about his own mental illness—views that recall the mid–20th century theories of Thomas Szasz.
“In many cases,” Nash insisted, “[mental health] has a voluntary element. When I was mentally disturbed, I went on strike. I wasn’t available to do my regular work. At MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a member of the mathematics faculty in the 1950s], I was supposed to have functions at various levels: administrator, computer research, teaching, and so on. I just didn’t want to continue all the work.
“When people are well, they’re behaving as we desire. When they’re unwell, they’re not doing their work—maybe any work. There are some subtleties about mental health, sanity, and insanity, and how you look at it.”
In other words, however bizarre Nash appeared to others during his illness, from the “inside,” as he reconstructed it, he was in control.
And looking back on the events of the past few days, it’s hard to imagine, had Nash been able to control them, too, how he could have planned a more dramatic exit.