John Nash: A Beautiful Mind Dies


On May 23, 2015, John Nash and his wife were killed while riding in a taxi on the New Jersey Turnpike. The driver hit a guardrail and another car, and the Nashes, who were not wearing seatbelts, were thrown from the taxi. John Nash was 86 and Alicia Nash was 83.

Nash was the subject of A Beautiful Mind, a best-selling book and an Oscar-winning film on the ups and downs of his incredible life. He was probably America’s most brilliant native-born mathematician, but he went from ground-breaking work before age 30 to incapacitating schizophrenia that required him to be hospitalized against his will. At age 21 he wrote his PhD thesis on game theory that is used to predict outcomes in economics, computing, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, accounting, politics and military theory. His game theory is used to analyze competitive situations such as occur between large corporations, elected officials passing government legislation and doctors doing biological research. Forty-five years after he wrote his thesis, he shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics with fellow game theorists Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi.

Early Life
He was born on June 13, 1928 in the coal-mining town of Bluefield, West Virginia. His father was an electrical engineer and his mother taught Latin. As a child, he read a lot of books and played a lot of chess. He received a full scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University but he did poorly in some courses because he often missed lectures and did not review course material. However, he did highly original research in mathematics and when he applied to graduate school, his adviser wrote on his letter of recommendation just one sentence: “This man is a genius.” He was accepted everywhere he applied, and chose Princeton over Harvard because they offered him a bigger scholarship.

Amazing Research and Odd Behavior
His 28-page thesis on Game Theory won him a PhD in 1950 and in 1951, at age 23, he was appointed to the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was tall and good-looking but strange. He wandered up and down the halls, walked off in the middle of conversations with other faculty members, and whistled incessantly. His peers described him as “brash, boastful, selfish, and egocentric.” He succeeded in proving Hilbert’s theory of elliptic partial differential equations and thought this should win him The Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. However, an Italian mathematician, Ennio de Giorgi, published a different proof two months before him. Nash believed that De Georgi’s proof prevented him from winning the Field’s Medal, and he was so disappointed that his behavior became even more bizarre.

He started a relationship with a nurse, Eleanor Stier, but left her when he found out that she was pregnant, She bore his son, John David Stier. He told friends that he thought that she was not educated enough for him. In 1954, at age 26, he was arrested in a Santa Monica restroom for having a homosexual relationship and, as a result, was deprived of his top-secret security clearance and fired from a lucrative consulting appointment at the RAND Corporation.

Diagnosis: Paranoid Schizophrenia
In 1957 he married one of his students at MIT, Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lardé. The next year, after his wife became pregnant, he lost all contact with reality. He gave lectures that were totally irrational, accused other faculty members of being communists, and argued about everything with everyone. In 1959, his wife had him admitted to McLean Hospital where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Upon his release, he resigned from his tenured life-long position at MIT, took his pension and went to Europe. His wife left her newborn son with her mother, followed him to Europe and convinced him to return to the United States. After their return, they settled in Princeton with no job or income. He snuck into buildings at Princeton, found empty classrooms and wrote unintelligible formulas on the blackboards.

In 1961, his wife had him committed to the New Jersey State Hospital and he received all kinds ineffective treatments for schizophrenia including electric shock therapy where electrodes are placed on his head to cause convulsions; insulin shock therapy, in which he was given insulin to drop his blood sugar so low that it sent him into shock; and massive doses of medications that made him unable to move or talk with people. There was even talk of a lobotomy that fortunately he did not get because it could have left him a vegetable. He spent the next few years in and out of hospitals.

In 1963, Alicia lost all hope that her 34-year old husband would ever be normal so she divorced him and raised her son by herself. In 1970 he was discharged from the hospital and moved into his former wife’s house, where they slept in separate bedrooms. With her incredible devotion and help, he was able to stop taking the mind-obtunding medications and even returned to his old Princeton office to work on mathematics problems and teach again. He said that every hospital admission had been against his will and felt that his recovery depended completely on his desire to stay out of trouble and learning to reject the voices and visions that he had in his head.

Nobel Prize for His Early Work
In the early 1990s, the Nobel committee began considering him for their prestigious award. He had not published a scientific paper since 1958, and he had not had a faculty appointment since 1959. His colleagues from his days at Princeton and MIT wrote to the committee that they felt that he was now emotionally stable enough to accept the prize. He shared the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with game theorists Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi, and the award allowed him to go from being a lost soul wandering around Princeton to a celebrity who received honorary degrees and served as Senior Research Mathematician at Princeton. In 2001, 38 years after their divorce, he and his ex-wife Alicia remarried.

A Sample Application of Nash’s Game Theory
Two companies sell the same product. If both companies set high prices they make $3 million each.
If both companies set low prices, they make $2 million each. If one sets a high price and the other a low price, the low-price company makes $4 million and the high-price makes $1 million. Thus, with no collusion, when one company sets a high price, the other company would set a lower price and could earn $4 million. As a result, both companies choose low prices and they make only $2 million each.

What is Schizophrenia?
There is no test that can be used to diagnose schizophrenia; it is diagnosed only by psychiatrists’ observations of abnormal thoughts and behaviors. Patients are diagnosed as schizophrenics because they suffer from:
• hallucinations (hear, see, feel and think of things different from what other people experience), and
• delusions (beliefs that are not held by most other people).
As a result of their behaviors, schizophrenics suffer from social isolation, lack of motivation, lack of energy, slow or halting speech, and lack of appropriate emotions. They often are depressed or bipolar.

Schizophrenics usually start to exhibit overt abnormal behavior in their teens, but the disease can start at any time, can come and go, and usually keeps recurring for the rest of a person’s life. Some schizophrenics improve as they age.

Causes of Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is probably many different diseases with many different causes. Some cases are apparently genetic, but at this time there is no genetic test to predict schizophrenia. An identical twin of a schizophrenic has a 50 percent chance of also becoming schizophrenic, and ten percent of schizophrenic parents have children who are schizophrenic. One of John Nash’s sons has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard and is also schizophrenic.

No Link to Genius
Because of a few notable cases of schizophrenia in geniuses, some people believe that there is a higher risk for this mental illness in gifted people. However, no data support this theory. Most schizophrenics are of average or below-average intelligence. They generally have difficulty keeping a job, making and keeping friends, functioning normally in society and living independently.

Schizophrenics’ Brains are Damaged
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and blood flow tests (PET scans) show that the brains of schizophrenics often:
• are smaller than normal with larger ventricles (fluid-filled spaces),
• have smaller parts of the brain called the frontal cortex, temporal lobes and the hippocampi, and
• have abnormal activation of the brain during memory and problem solving

Nerves in the brain communicate with each other by sending chemicals called neurotransmitters from one nerve to another. Many researchers believe that neurotransmitter abnormalities occur in schizophrenics, but they do not know which ones or how they function abnormally.

Drug and Behavior Treatments
In the early 1950s, Chlorpromazine became the first drug used to treat schizophrenia because it reduced delusions and hallucinations, but it also caused terrible sleepiness, muscle cramps and restlessness. It did not help schizophrenics relate to other people, think rationally or improve memory. In the 1980s, clozapine was found to improve delusions and hallucinations, but it can shut down the body’s production of white blood cells and kill the patient. In the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration approved risperidone, olanzapine, quetiapine, and ziprasidone, which are safer and improve the ability to reason. However, just about all of the anti-psychotic medications have serious side effects and most cause weight gain.

Today there is no cure for schizophrenia. Patients are usually given four or more drugs in combination which help to control symptoms, but they never offer a cure and have lots of side effects. Teaching patients to cope with hallucinations and abnormal thoughts has not been very effective. Family therapy can help friends and relatives cope with the bizarre behavior and special needs.

John Forbes Nash, Jr.
June 13, 1928 – May 23, 2015