News Decoder

The first time I met John Nash I was overwhelmed — and amused. The math genius was both eccentric and human.

Nobel Prize Laureate John Nash at a photo exhibition in Germany in May 2009. (Joerg Carstensen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images) Nobel Prize Laureate John Nash at a photo exhibition in Germany in May 2009. (Joerg Carstensen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

The first time I met John Nash I was overwhelmed — and amused.

I knew about the Nash equilibrium, a founding concept for game theory, a branch of mathematics used in economics and other social sciences. Of course I knew he had won the Nobel Prize. I had seen the film “A Beautiful Mind”, which portrayed Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia and won several Oscars.

But I did not know he could be so endearingly eccentric.

A slender figure in his 70’s, wearing a suit and bow tie at a university dinner, he jumped excitedly from one table to another and snapped pictures. Not the kind of behavior to go unnoticed at a proper gala event.

That dinner more than a decade ago was the start of a tradition. Every July for the past dozen years Nash attended a seminar on game theory at Stony Brook University, where my husband teaches.

There were other dinners, scattered over the years. At one he delivered a speech, but because of his soft voice and a bad microphone, no one could hear what he said. The 10 minutes seemed an eternity. Everyone remained silent, out of respect.

Another summer we had a party at our home with a few friends. One guest brought red wine, another white, and a third good whisky.

We had to accompany Nash home after he tasted all three — without ever making up his mind which was best.

Last July, my husband and I hosted a small dinner party on our patio for Nash and a family friend. Ever slender and soft-spoken, Nash seemed like most any other elderly gentleman.

He complained that his mind was not what it used to be, even though he was a genius and well aware of it. (When he applied for graduate school at Princeton, one of his supporters wrote a one-line letter of recommendation: “This man is a genius.”)

So, emboldened by the summer air and the wine, I dared ask him: “Do you remember anything about your sickness?”

“A bit,’’ he replied. Even Isaac Newton, he said, probably suffered from some kind of mental illness. “How would you otherwise explain Newton’s fixation with alchemy?” Nash asked.

“A half is more than a third,” Nash quipped.

“Do you think that great mathematicians are more inclined to mental illness?” I asked. He could not say for sure but observed: “There is some evidence.”

While he helped himself to a second serving of fruit cake, I thought to myself that he was human, after all. “Are you still able to study and write?” I hazarded. “Of course,” he replied, as if there were no other option.

“Do you consider yourself to be more a mathematician or an economist?” our friend asked him. At first Nash was non-committal, as though it did not matter. Then he conceded that his contribution to mathematics was probably greater.

Two months ago, Nash won the prestigious Abel Prize for mathematics along with Louis Niremberg. “A half is more than a third,” Nash quipped when asked if he was prouder of the Abel or the Nobel, which he shared with two other economists.

On Saturday, when he died with his wife Alicia in a car crash, he was on his way home following a celebration in Norway of the Abel Prize. We will miss him this summer.


A correspondent and editor in Europe and the United States for more than two decades, Tiziana Barghini has reported on Popes, mobsters, and political crises. She led Reuters coverage of the euro crisis in southern Europe before moving to New York where she tackled the U.S. political economy including Detroit’s bankruptcy and the U.S. public pension system.

.
Share This
EyewitnessJohn Nash: Eccentric and human