John Forbes Nash Jr., considered by many the mathematical genius of the 20th century, died on Saturday along with his wife in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike. He was 86.
Nash and his wife, Alicia Nash, 82, of Princeton Township, had just flown home from Norway where he had received an award and the couple had taken a cab home from the airport, a colleague who had also received an award with Nash said.
Known as brilliant and eccentric, Nash was associated with Princeton University for many years, most recently serving as a senior research mathematician. He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994 for his work in game theory, which offered insight into the dynamics of human rivalry. It is considered one of the most influential ideas of the twentieth century.
Just a few days ago, Nash had received a prize from the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters in Oslo with New York University mathematician Louis Nirenberg, who said he’d chatted with the couple for an hour at the airport in Newark before they’d gotten a cab. Nirenberg said Nash was a truly great mathematician and “a kind of genius.”
“We were all so happy together,” Nirenberg said. “It seemed like a dream.”
In an autobiography written for The Nobel Foundation website, Nash said delusions caused him to resign as a faculty member at MIT. He also spent several months in New Jersey hospitals on an involuntary basis.
However, Nash’s mental illness diminished through the 1970s and 1980s as he “gradually began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking,” he wrote.
Born in Bluefield, W. Va., Nash had read the classic Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell by the time he was in high school. He planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and studied for three years at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, but instead developed a passion for mathematics.
He then went to Princeton, where he worked on his equilibrium theory and, in 1950, received his doctorate with a dissertation on non-cooperative games. The thesis contained the properties of what would later be called the Nash equilibrium.