Many people who are not really involved in the world of science learned who John Nash was after the movie A Beautiful Mind was released, starring Russel Crowe. To a certain point, the film idealizes the mathematician and John Nash himself even pointed this out after he watched the film. However, there is a more realistic and almost completely unknown documentary called A Brilliant Madness.
We at 5 Fun Facts looked at John Nash’s life from a different perspective. We also read the book A Beautiful Mind that has way more biographical facts than the Hollywood movie.
Youth and college
In his childhood, Nash hated math and he didn’t have good grades in school. In his autobiography, he says that everything changed after he read Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell. It was written in such a gripping and simple way that after he read it, he was able to prove a simple theorem.
Of course, Nash entered the math department as a student and before that, he managed to acquire some knowledge in chemical engineering and international economics. For his outstanding achievement, John received not only his bachelor’s, but also his master’s, and he was on his way to develop himself at Princeton University. He had a note from his former teacher that said, “He is a mathematical genius.”
His ex-classmates claim that John was obsessed with money and incredibly stingy. Once, they pranked him and told him that there was a bank that gave envelopes and stamps for free to people who opened accounts there. He searched and searched but was unable to find this wonderful bank.
During his first years as a student, he had his first serious romantic relationship and few people knew about it. The relationship ended in a really painful separation and as a result, John had a son who he never had contact with.
Despite his love life problems, Nash was determined to do what he wanted. He was 21 years old when he wrote a dissertation at Princeton about the game theory. 45 years later, he will win the Nobel Prize for this theory.
Marriage and the first signs of his disease
After he finished his postgraduate studies, John decided to stay at Princeton to teach students and also worked with some companies. He was 26 years old when the police detained him for obscene behavior. We don’t know the details of that story, but it is likely that this case was the first sign of John’s psychological problems. More than that, John lost his privileges at work: he no longer had access to secret information.
A little later, John married his student Alicia Lard who was only 4 years younger than him. One year later, Fortune magazine names Nash “a rising math star” and his wife got pregnant. At about the same time, the first signs of his schizophrenia started to show.
The diseases developed very quickly and it was harder and harder for him to hide it from the public. But the last straw was when Nash refused the offer to become the dean of the math faculty. He said that he was not going to waste his time on such silly things and he wanted to be the emperor of Antarctica.
John lost his job and was put into a psychiatric facility for compulsory treatment. He was diagnosed with “paranoid schizophrenia” and he was forced to take medication for 2 months. After he left the hospital, he suddenly decided to leave for Europe. Alicia asked her parents to look after the newborn baby and followed her husband. Nash tried to get political asylum but failed. Soon, he was arrested and deported to the US.
We have to mention the visual hallucinations that play a huge role in A Beautiful Mind. The real Nash never saw any hallucinations, he only heard voices. Aside from that, the mathematician had a lot of irrational fears that the movie doesn’t mention either. For example, when he saw a red tie, he would think that the person wearing it was a Communist conspiracy member.
Despite popular opinion, John never worked for the Pentagon and he never tried to decipher encrypted messages from Russian and Japanese spies. But he thought that the world was preparing a conspiracy against the US, so he wrote personal letters to the US government. Without the boring details, John tried to convince the government that they had to use a completely different method of encryption and he even suggested one. The amazing fact is that this is the method that is used nowadays. But nobody even responded to John’s letters at the time.
Insulin shock therapy and leaving his family
His disease continued to get worse. Aggressive treatment in psychological facilities was ineffective. John spoke in the third person, he kept calling his former colleagues in order to inform them about yet another crazy conspiracy theory, and he was afraid of something.
When the situation got completely out of control, Nash was put into a clinic again. There, he had insulin shock therapy — this is when a person is put into a coma with insulin. After he left the hospital, John’s former colleagues offered him a job, but Nash refused it and went to Europe again.
This trip was the last straw for Alicia. She divorced John and raised their son by herself. Unfortunately, when he was a teenager, their son was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. He claimed that the voices he heard were coming from God. He not only had sound hallucinations, but he had the visual ones as well.
After he returned from his “trip” Nash got a job at Princeton University and met a new psychiatrist that prescribed him some lighter medications. They were different from the ones he was forced to take in the hospitals. The pills suppressed the symptoms and Nash started communicating with his wife and son again. However, it didn’t last long: John was afraid that the medications would impair his thinking abilities and stopped taking them and the symptoms returned.
At Princeton, Nash often wandered around the university grounds like a ghost and wrote down strange formulas on the boards. This is why his students called him Phantom.
Battle with schizophrenia and 2 prestigious awards
Despite the fact that the disease was even more serious now, Alicia allowed Nash to move into her house. She felt that she had betrayed Nash when she divorced him. This decision might have been the one that saved the genius mathematician from vagrancy because when he was divorced, he didn’t have his own place and often stayed at hotels or at his friend’s places.
His symptoms didn’t get better until the 1980s. Doctors were amazed and didn’t know what had happened. The secret was that John used the power of his mind in order to not pay attention to the symptoms and started doing research in math again. At this point he had completely stopped taking the medications.
Another possible explanation is that the symptoms of schizophrenia had become less evident to John in his older age. So maybe it was a natural process and the disease didn’t just magically go away.
In 1994, Nash received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for the dissertation that he wrote at the age of 21. John didn’t have a chance to give a traditional speech because the organizers were worried about his mental state. Instead, a seminar was organized where scientists discussed John’s contribution to the game theory.
And several years later, Nash and Alicia got married again. It had been 38 years since they divorced. And a short time before Nash died, he received the most prestigious math award — the Abel Prize. So, he is the only person who has gotten both the Nobel and the Abel Prizes.
John and Alicia died on the same day and at the same exact moment. In 2015, they got into a car crash. He was 86 and Alicia was 82. Interestingly, both spouses hadn’t fastened their seatbelts and the driver did and he survived the crash. As you can see, even the life of a genius can be ended by a minor mistake.
A Beautiful Mind ends positively: an aged John Nash receives the Nobel Prize and Alicia is standing beside him with their long and happy lives ahead of them. Tell us how differently you pictured Nash after you saw the film and how you see him now!