Tragic but Meaningful Life of Legendary Mathematician John Nash

John Forbes Nash Jr. was an American mathematician who jolted the world with his amazing contribution made to game theory, the study of differential equations and differential geometry. Nash’s work has provided insight into the factors that govern decision-making and chance inside complex systems found in everyday life. 

Game theory addressed one person's gains result in losses for the other participants. A classic example to understand this is the 

Prisoner's Dilemma, A situation where two prisoners are being questioned over their guilt or innocence of a crime. 

The prisoners don’t know what other will say and they don’t have access to each other. They both are partners in Crime. If both don’t confess to the crime they both get a 1-year jail term, if they both confess they get 8 years in jail term and if one of them confesses and the other lies he walks free and other get 10 years in Jail and vice versa. What would you do in this kind of situation? Game theory checks payoffs and while confessing both risk and reward is higher. Nash Equilibrium suggests confessing in this situation.

He served as a Senior Research Mathematician at Princeton University during the latter part of his life. His theories are widely used in economics. He shared the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics Sciences with game theorists John Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten. For his work on nonlinear partial differential equations, he also shared the Abel Prize with Louis Nirenberg.

He is the only person who has won both Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the Abel Prize.  

It was in 1959 when Nash started showing signs of mental illness and spent several years at psychiatric hospitals being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. After 1970, he started showing slight improvement and returned to academic work by the mid-1980s. Sylvia Nasar wrote his biography highlighting his struggles and a movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ starring Russel Crow as Nash was also made. In an unfortunate accident, both Nash and his wife Alicia were killed in a car crash on May 23, 2015.

Game theory talks about the situations where decisions interact- where the reward or the “payoff” for a decision maker does not depend on his or her decisions but also on the decision of others.

In real life, such situations are pervasive. For instance, how much profit a firm will reap depends not only on the price it sets for its products but also on the prices set by its competitors. The payoff for a buyer in an auction, for instance, depends on not only the amount he bids but also on the bids of the other buyers.  

Professor John Nash is still discussed at scientific conferences around the world and his contribution opened a window for new research. Despite he was wrestling with mental illness, he kept on giving novel ideas to the world.

Even though he was a private person, he had a strikingly public profile, especially for a mathematician. In the film “A Beautiful Mind”, his life was beautifully dramatized. In the movie, he and Alicia Nash were portrayed by actors Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. The movie best depicts his influential work on game theory.

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