Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 983:
JOHN FORBES NASH, JR.

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 983.

Today, a terrible story with a happy ending. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

On October 11, 1994, John Forbes Nash, Jr. won the Nobel Prize for pioneering work in game theory. Nash was 66 and, for most of his adult life he'd suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

Nash began his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1948 -- when he was just 20. While he was still only 21, he wrote a 27-page doctoral dissertation on game theory -- the mathematics of competition. The great John von Neuman, then at Princeton, had treated win-lose competitions. Now Nash showed how to construct mathematical scenarios in which both sides won. He found stable scenarios where no person continues to profit from competition.

Nash put a whole new face on competition, and he drew the attention of theoretical economists. They turned game theory into a tool. This young genius brought the field to fruition.

He went on to MIT and for eight years dazzled the mathematical world. He worked in economics. He even invented the game of Hex, marketed by Parker Brothers. He married in 1957. New York Times writer Silvia Nasar tells how "Fortune magazine singled him out in July 1958 as America's brilliant young star of the 'new mathematics.'" Everything was coming up roses for John Nash.

Then, disaster! Mental illness wrapped about him like an evil cloud. He began hearing voices. He'd once astonished mathematicians with his unlikely results. Now his results stopped making sense, and the dividing line wasn't clear at first. He began looking for secret messages in numbers. He disappeared for days. He could, in Nasar's words, "no longer sort and interpret sensations or reason or feel the full range of emotions."

Freudian psychologists of the '50s claimed that his wife's pregnancy had tipped him over the edge. Nice thing to lay on a woman already stressed to the edge by her husband's collapse! The marriage ended; but she housed him, back in Princeton.

For 25 years, mental illness owned John Nash. He became a ghost, wandering the halls of Princeton and suffering in some private Hell. It was in the mid-1980s that Nash at last learned to manage the demon and, once again, he could do mathematics.

Meanwhile, game theory had become a staple tool of business and economics. All the writing in that field points back to Nash's seminal work. Finally, Nash received the Nobel Prize in economics. Nobel Prize winners usually have a political constituency in their corner. All Nash had was his own merit.

Today, he's working on novel uses of the computer. Princeton has given him a research post. Nash has survived what looked like death. And we're left looking at mental illness far more compassionately -- and far more realistically.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Nasar, S., The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate. The New York Times, Business Section, Sunday, November 13, 1994, pp. 3,8.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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