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Remembering Nobel Prize-Winning Mathematician John Nash


Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John F. Nash, Jr., died in a car crash yesterday. He was 86. Nash revolutionized the study of game theory, or strategic decision-making. He also struggled with schizophrenia. His amazing life story inspired the Oscar-winning film "A Beautiful Mind." NPR Sam Sanders has this remembrance.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: John Forbes Nash lead a life that was equal parts groundbreaking, tragic and ultimately triumphant. University of Chicago economist Roger Myerson says Nash was a man determined.

ROGER MYERSON: He was arrogant enough to want to think about it his own way. And when his teachers were kind of looking at game theory the wrong way, young John Nash didn't want to do it that way. In this case, the student was right.

SANDERS: Right and different - those two words, in a way, sum up Nash's life. John F. Nash, Jr., was born in 1928 in Bluefield, W. Va. He was the son of an electrical engineer and a school teacher. He studied mathematics at Carnegie Mellon, got a Ph.D. at Princeton and later taught at MIT. Myerson says Nash's work fundamentally changed the field.

MYERSON: Before Nash, people could say that economics was about the allocation of resources. After Nash, people could say that economics was about the analysis of how competitive behavior creates complex systems of incentives.

SANDERS: But for a long time, Nash was disconnected from that work. In 1959, he began battling schizophrenia. He was hospitalized multiple times and underwent electroshock therapy. Nash battled the illness for more than two decades. He described it in a PBS documentary.


JOHN NASH: A delusional state of mind is like living a dream. When I knew where I was, I was there in observation, but I was able to think that I was, like, a victim of a conspiracy.

SANDERS: Nash's wife, Alicia Nash, took care of him during much of that period. The couple divorced during his illness and later remarried. By the '90s, Nash had his schizophrenia under control, and several colleagues began to push for greater recognition of his work. Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994. In 2001, Nash's story became the subject of the Oscar-winning film "A Beautiful Mind," which starred Russell Crowe. In a 2004 interview posted to the Nobel committee's website, Nash said he tried to always approach his work from a different perspective.


NASH: I don't think exactly like a professional economist. I think about economics somewhat like an outsider.

SANDERS: Even if he was an outsider professionally and, at times, personally, Roger Myerson says Nash's legacy is strong.

MYERSON: His suffering, I know, was real, but he was touched by glory, and he's important to us.

SANDERS: John F. Nash, Jr., and his wife, Alicia, died Saturday when the taxi they were riding in crashed in New Jersey. They had just returned from Norway, where Nash had received yet another prize for his work. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.