Nobel Prize–winning mathematician John F. Nash Jr., 86, and his wife, Alicia, 82, whose lives were the basis of the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind, were killed yesterday in a car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. NJ.com reports that the crash occurred when the couple’s taxi collided with a guard rail after the driver lost control. The husband and wife were being driven to their Princeton-area home after returning from a trip to Norway and weren’t wearing their seat belts at the time of the crash. The taxi driver and another motorist suffered non-life-threatening injuries, and so far no charges have been announced regarding the accident.
Nash, a bona fide genius, was as giant a figure in mathematics as one can get, and his contributions in the fields of math and economics are widely regarded as some of the most important of the last century. The achievement for which Nash was most famous was his 1950 game theory dissertation, known as the Nash equilibria, which the New York Times says “provided a conceptually simple but powerful mathematical tool for analyzing a wide range of competitive situations, from corporate rivalries to legislative decision making. Dr. Nash’s approach is now pervasive in economics and throughout the social sciences and is applied routinely in other fields, like evolutionary biology.” The Times adds that University of Chicago economist Roger Myerson likened the impact of the Nash’s equilibria to game theory as “to that of the discovery of the DNA double helix in the biological sciences.” Furthermore, many peers believe his later work in pure mathematics is even more important than his contributions to game theory.
Outside of math and economics circles, Nash was best known from the 2001 film based on his life and struggles with mental illness, A Beautiful Mind, which starred Russell Crowe as Nash and was awarded four Oscars, including Best Picture. The film focuses on Nash’s early career and the traumatic bouts with schizophrenia that followed, as well as how he, with the essential help of his wife, Alicia, worked to overcome the illness. Their love story is one for the ages as well: They divorced during the darkest period of his mental decline, but never separated, and eventually remarried in 2001, 38 years after their divorce. Over his life, Nash has worked at MIT and Princeton, where he was a senior research mathematician for the latter part of his career. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in competitive game theory. He had remained active in his field until his death; in fact, the reason he and his wife were in Norway was so he and a colleague could receive a prestigious award called the Abel Prize for their work on geometric analysis.
Here’s how Sylvia Nasar, who wrote the biography of Nash on which the movie was based, described the mathematician’s brilliance and drive:
Nash was always looking for big, unsolved problems. At MIT in the early 1950s, Nash on a dare took up a problem that had baffled mathematicians for a century. The experts in the subject predicted he’d get nowhere. They were wrong. He succeeded by simplifying the problem and then pursuing a strategy that seemed bizarre only because it was novel. It was just another example of Nash’s tendency to trust his own instincts over received wisdom. “Everyone else would climb a peak by looking for a path somewhere on the mountain,” one of Nash’s supporters said later. “Nash would climb another mountain altogether and from a distant peak would shine a searchlight back on the first peak.” Or as Nash himself put it, he tended “to think that the thing to do is to get away from what other people are doing and not to follow directly in anyone’s recent work.”