John Forbes Nash, 1928–2015

by Frederic Friedel
5/24/2015 – In 1950 the 21-year-old mathematician John Nash submitted a Ph.D. dissertation on non-cooperative games – a concept that found use in economics, computing, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, and other fields. A week ago the Nobel laureate, in Norway to receive a special award, was introduced to Magnus Carlsen. On his return to New Jersey he was tragically killed in a car accident.

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John Forbes Nash, Jr., June 13, 1928 – May 23, 2015

John Forbes Nash, Jr. (picture above from Wikipedia) was an American mathematician whose works in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations have provided insight into the factors that govern chance and events inside complex systems in daily life.

His theories are used in economics, computing, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, accounting, politics and military theory. Serving as a Senior Research Mathematician at Princeton University during the latter part of his life, he shared the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with game theorists Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi. In 2015, he was awarded the Abel Prize (along with Louis Nirenberg) for his work on nonlinear partial differential equations.

The New York Times (and other news outlets) reported today that John Nash, 86, and his wife, Alicia, 82, were killed when the taxi they were riding in lost control and hit a guard rail and another vehicle while traveling southbound on the New Jersey Turnpike. The driver lost control while attempting to pass another vehicle, and Mr. and Mrs. Nash were ejected from the vehicle. They were pronounced dead at the scene. The taxi driver and the driver of the other car were treated for non-life threatening injuries. There are no criminal charges at this time.

"Dr. Nash was widely regarded as one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century," writes the NYT, "known for the originality of his thinking and for his fearlessness in wrestling down problems so difficult few others dared tackle them. His theory of non-cooperative games, published in 1950 and known as Nash equilibria, 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."

Between Genius and Madness

This is what Simon Singh wrote about Nash in a NYT book review:

On Dec. 5, 1994, Vice President Al Gore announced the opening of what was to be called the greatest auction ever. The Government was selling off licenses that would allow companies to set up mobile phone networks using particular sections of the radio spectrum. Three months later, when bidding had concluded, the Treasury was $7 billion richer, and the auction was proclaimed a resounding success. However, the most important aspect of the auction was not so much the amount of money raised, but rather that it was organized according to an innovative and revolutionary principle and was a concrete vindication of game theory, one of the most important developments in modern economics.

It was the work of John Forbes Nash Jr., who laid the foundations of game theory in 1949 at the age of 21. Sylvia Nasar, who writes about economics for The New York Times, describes in some detail the complex theory that ultimately led to a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994 in a book that was turned into an award-winning film.

A Beautiful Mind

This 2001 biographical film is based on the life of John Nash and directed by Ron Howard, who incidentally is himself a chess fan. It was inspired by a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1998 book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar. The book describes in some detail the complex theory that won Nash a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. It is also a touching account of a man caught between genius and madness.

The film, starring Russell Crowe, begins in the early years of the young prodigy. Early in the film, Nash begins to develop paranoid schizophrenia and endures delusional episodes while painfully watching the loss and burden his condition brings on his wife and friends.

The film won four Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. It was also nominated for Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, and Best Original Score. The final scenes belong to the most moving in film history.

Buy it, rent it, or watch it on Youtube:

There is a section on Nash's encounter with Go nine minutes into the film

Obituary for John Nash

John Nash and Magnus Carlsen

Last Tuesday John Nash and Louis Nirenberg received the 2015 Abel Prize, awarded annually by the Government of Norway to one or more outstanding mathematicians. The two Americans received it "for striking and seminal contributions to the theory of nonlinear partial differential equations and its applications to geometric analysis." The total prize money was six mill NOK (EUR 700,000 or US $750,000) and was given by the Norwegian King Harald V at an award ceremony in Oslo.

On the evening before the award ceremony John Nash was introduced to World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. You can watch a video of the encounter in this NRK report. Nash says that he encouraged his son (who was also diagnosed with schizophrenia, to play chess and asks Magnus whether he thinks the game could be good for mental health. "I think it keeps the mind active, I suppose," replies Magnus, who goes on to sign a chessboard for Nash.

With a wry sense of humour Nash says: "There is a paradoxical
resemblance between two persons: I didn't expect to meet Justin Bieber!

On a personal note

In 1979 I visited the late Martin Gardner in his home in Hastings-on-Hudson. He and many others (including myself) had recently founded the skeptical Committee for Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which mutated into the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry, the publishers of the Skeptical Inquirer. Martin gave me a number of contacts, for instance Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Van Quine, who were part of CSICOP, but also other people I could try to recruit for the Committee. One of them was John Nash, whom I contacted on two occasions by phone. I also corresponded briefly with him, but did not meet him in person. When he discovered that I had a special interest in chess the conversations switched from skepticism to game theory. He explained the concept of "non-cooperative games" and how it applied to chess – which he said he had played enthusiastically and "pondered quite a bit." Unfortunately I was not able to follow his logic of "equilibria" too well – it was like listening to the verbal analysis of a strong grandmaster, without a board or pieces.

I spent a couple of hours today searching my archives for a longhand letter I received in which he summarized his thoughts on the game of chess and, I believe, backgammon, but to my shame have not been able to locate it. All I can say in my defence is that at the time I had no idea how important this man was. I thought I was talking to a random University mathematician and failed to follow up on a discussion he seem willing to engage in. Only years later when I saw A Beautiful Mind it was brought home to me whom I had been dealing with.

Frederic Friedel

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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