Princeton University Celebrates John and Alicia Nash: “Beautiful Minds” and Legendary Lives Remembered

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By Donald Gilpin 

“His life story is something out of a fairy tale, a Greek myth or a Shakespeare play,” said biographer Sylvia Nasar, at last Saturday’s celebration of the life and work of John F. Nash, Jr. at Princeton University.

Hundreds of admirers of Professor Nash and his wife Alicia, who died in a car crash on May 23 on the New Jersey Turnpike on their return home from Norway where he had received the coveted Abel Prize, gathered for a day of lectures, culminating in an early evening Service of Remembrance in the University Chapel. 

In addition to Ms. Nasar, whose 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Mr. Nash, A Beautiful Mind, became the basis for the 2001 Oscar-winning movie with the same title, the day’s speakers included a distinguished array of mathematics and economics professors. The Remembrance Service mixed personal recollections of the Nashes with observations on Mr. Nash’s remarkable career.

Mr. Nash won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994 for his early work in game theory, though many felt his contributions to mathematics, specifically recognized by the Abel prize, were his most impressive accomplishments. Renowned for attacking the most difficult problems in his field, Mr. Nash is widely considered one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century.

The story of Mr. Nash’s life, according to Ms. Nasar, included three very different acts: “genius, madness, reawakening.” Admitted to the doctoral program at Princeton with a recommendation letter of five words: “This man is a genius,” Mr. Nash, in 1950, in his early 20s, created a theory of noncooperative games, the Nash equilibrium, a powerful mathematical tool still widely used in fields of business, government, social sciences, economics, and evolutionary biology.

But soon afterwards, Mr. Nash declined into mental illness, where delusion took over from reality, and he was hospitalized in 1959 with paranoid schizophrenia. After a long period of being unable to work and suffering from illness, isolation, and poverty, his redemption began. “Slowly he just somehow woke up,” Ms. Nasar explained, attributing his recovery to the aging process, his personal struggle to control his illusions, and the support of a few people — most notably his wife Alicia, who, after their divorce in 1963, stood by him and helped nurse him back to health. They remarried in 2001.

Ms. Nasar praised the film version of her biography, but stated that “the transformations in Nash’s mind were greater than any that were seen on the screen.” She emphasized that the third act of his life was both a reawakening and a love story.

“Had Alicia not taken him in, he wouldn’t have been in any condition to come back,” she said. “John Nash’s third act should not have ended as it did. Nonetheless it was a great act. It was a miraculous recovery. He got his life back.”

Among the speakers at the University Chapel Remembrance were family, friends, and colleagues. Mr. Nash’s older son, John David Stier, spoke fondly of his father and stepmother, and particularly of the campus and the larger community in which his father was able to reclaim his life. “With friends like these,” he stated, “it was impossible for my father to stay in the darkness forever.”

Mr. Stier described Princeton as a place where his father “was always accepted, never criticized, and always allowed to be himself.”

Kirsti Strom Bull, president of The Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, which presented the Abel Prize for mathematics to Mr. Nash just four days before his death, told of the days of celebration in Oslo in May as her friendship with the Nashes grew. She remembered Mr. Nash’s final words to her: “You must come visit us in Princeton,” followed two days later by “the tremendous shock for the whole Academy” when news of the tragedy arrived.

Also remembering the final days was Louis Nirenberg, a colleague and friend of Mr. Nash for 60 years and co-recipient of the 2015 Abel Prize. Professor of Mathematics Emeritus at the Courant Institute at New York University, Mr. Nirenberg recalled several meetings with Mr. Nash over the years as they worked together on mathematical problems, then connecting in Oslo for the Abel recognition (“It was a wonderful week for all of us. They enjoyed it enormously.”) before flying home together, and, finally, waiting together with John and Alicia for transportation home from Newark Airport. “For that hour [before the Nashes’ fateful accident] Alicia and John and I were just chatting.”

David Smith, President of the MIT Club of Princeton — John and Alicia had first met at MIT in 1955 when Alicia was a physics major there and John was a mathematics instructor — spoke about Alicia’s “tenacious strength and courage” and her extraordinary support for her husband, as well as her advocacy for the mentally ill. “John was a quiet person” Mr. Smith said. “Alicia was the outgoing one.”

Another longtime friend, James Manganaro, remembered first encountering Mr. Nash when Mr. Manganaro was a freshman student in Mr. Nash’s class at MIT in 1957, “The most startling thing about Professor Nash’s class was his use of the English language. I’ve never heard the language used with such clarity.”

An “appreciation” from Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, read by University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee, described the extraordinarily wide and deep impact of the life and death of the Nashes. Condolences poured in to the University from around the world. “The world felt a personal connection to John and Alicia Nash,” Mr. Eisgruber’s letter stated. “And people around the world felt a personal loss when they died so suddenly. John and Alicia embodied for millions of people both the exhilaration of human aspirations and the sorrow of human tragedy. The worldwide legend of John and Alicia will endure as a story of struggle and redemption.”

“We may not see the likes of John Nash again,” Ms. Nasar stated in her lecture, “but his story will remain” — an extraordinary man and an incredible story, as so many confirmed at Saturday’s celebration and remembrance.

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