Remembering mathematician John Nash


Princeton University mathematician John Nash, regarded as one of the great mathematical minds of the 20th century, and his wife Alicia were killed on Saturday when their taxi crashed. Nash was 86, his wife 82 years old.

Nash was renowned for his work in game theory, the study of strategic decision making. He won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994.

In 2002, WHYY host Dr. Dan Gottlieb sat down with Nash to talk about his life, and his struggles with mental illness.  Nash had schizophrenia – and his life inspired the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe, which won several Oscars.

His conversation with Gottlieb was taped at the Free Public Library of Philadelphia, in front of an audience of more than 200 people. To listen to excerpts from the interview, click the audio player above.

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Nash was talkative for most of their hour-long conversation; hilariously funny and witty at times, and suddenly flat and rambling during other moments .

Gottlieb asked Nash when he first realized there was something wrong with his mind.

“There’s the thing about paranoia, you can be a paranoid schizophrenic, such a person doesn’t see fault in themselves, but may see fault in everybody else,” answered Nash. “The character in the movie doesn’t know there’s something wrong with himself; he’s doing this important work to defend against the Russians.”

Nash said he started being more aware of his illness during several hospitalizations, especially a time when he was at a New Jersey state hospital in Trenton.

“When I was in the hospital, I was really locked up, and I knew that you’re not getting out of this place if you seem to be crazy.”

Nash said patients were rewarded with different privileges, such as access to the yard, if they behaved a certain way, and he soon learned what he had to do to gain more freedom. He also said he began to question what the voices he was hearing were telling him:

“It’s difficult to be in a mental hospital and to think of the other people as enlightened prophets. You may be the enlightened prophet yourself, but the other people rather just look like mental patients.”

He said after a few months in the hospital, he was ready to return to “normal” life. He insisted that he was not really suffering during the height of his illness.

“Mental illness has always been described as something where the people are suffering, but the people are really in an altered state of existence. If you are an alcoholic, are you suffering, or do you enjoy drinking?” he asked.

He also joked that when he believed he was one of the most important people in the world, it was not necessarily unpleasant to feel that way.

Nash started to approach his mental illness with a scientist’s mind, rather than taking the medications he was prescribed, which he said had too many side effects.

“I first reached the state of being able to dismiss the voices. ‘This is not good thinking, this is subconscious portion of my mind that is giving me bad ideas. I can do better thinking consciously. It should be superior to a voice,'” he explained.

He told Gottlieb that he felt sadness occasionally, about the missing years in his life.

“But at the time when I went into mental illness I might have been in danger of slipping into mediocrity,” he said, adding jokingly: “Mathematicians have a reputation to not do much after a certain age. By going into mental illness instead, I avoided going into a rut.”

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