Sunday, May 24, 2015

R.I.P. John Forbes Nash (1928-2015)

John Forbes Nash
This past Saturday, mathematician John Forbes Nash and his wife for close to 60 years Alicia died in a car crash. With an impressive career that earned him a Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics, he influenced the the math world with his radical new ways of thinking with Game Theory. It even came to be that he earned the nickname of The Phantom of Fine Hall for his desires to scribble arcane equations in the middle of the night (a reference that made it into Rebecca Goldstein's "The Mind-Body Problem"). For a man with such a storied career going back to the 50's with a published paper on non-cooperative games, he left a valuable mark on the world that would be hard to properly summarize. This is largely because despite an amazing career with a lot of revolutionary ideas, he also developed mental illness - a notion that makes his achievements all the more interesting.

In 1959, Nash began to experience mental disturbances that seemed to correlate with his wife's pregnancy. Having taken psychotropic drugs, which he called overrated, he believed that their side effects weren't properly chronicled. While he would gradually recover, his erratic behavior and growing bipolar disorder became problematic for his career. He was in hospitals and treated for the following nine years. In the mid-60's he began to hear voices in his head, of which he did his best to reject. Despite this, he remained busy working on mathematics and by 1995, it was believed that he was thinking rationally, but in a more limited way. 

As his career advanced, he began to receive more honors, including the John Von Neumann Theory Prize in 1971 for work that would be called the Nash equilibria. He was also developing theories on money in society and evolutionary psychology regarding nonstandard behaviors. Between 1945 and 1996, he published 23 different studies. In 1999, he received an honorary degree for Doctor of Science and Technology from Carnegie Mellon University. He most recently won the Abel Prize for his work in mathematics.

However, his work is likely better known to audiences in a different form. If his struggle with mental illness sounds familiar, it is likely because it was the subject for Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind. Based on Sylvia Nasar's 1998 biography on Nash of the same name, it focused on his personal struggles with mental illness and his growing desire to cure it. While the film has some questionable moves, specifically regarding medical intakes, it ended up being a hit with critics and a box office smash. It focused on Nash and Alicia starting in 1947 and chronicling the time leading up to his growing paranoia and mental illness.

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind
Played by Russell Crowe, Nash was given a reverential treatment in the film. It has been praised for its depiction of schizophrenia. There are various details that were changed, including the various offices and people that Nash was involved with. However, it remains one of the more inspiring and interesting takes on mental illness of the past few decades. However, the film was strong enough to not only earn Best Picture, but earned Crowe a nomination and Jennifer Connelly won for playing Alicia. The film has since gone on to be one of director Ron Howard's (who also won for Best Director) best films and consistently ranks in IMDb's user voted Top 250.

When told of Nash's death, Crowe provided his own personal tribute via his Twitter account:

While A Beautiful Mind may be a slightly fictionalized account, there are other versions of the story that sought to tell a more honest tale. The most noteworthy of these is the PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness that was narrated by Liev Schreiber. It has been praised for its accuracy as part of the station's hour long The American Experience series.

Whether he is remembered for his actual amazing work or film, John Forbes Nash leaves behind an impressive career that defied all odds. Even with mental illness, he was able to make a difference in the world, revolutionizing mathematics and making us see the world differently. While his death is tragic, his legacy will continue to evolve and show its ultimate strengths. He was someone who sought for change and made it possible. For that alone, Nash is quite the champion of life.

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