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John Nash and Brandeis

Published: January 22, 2010
Section: Opinions

One does not need to be at Brandeis very long to feel the pervasive influence of some of the great thinkers who have come to and from our school. From the artistic festival dedicated to Leonard Bernstein to the semi-frequent visits from Thomas Friedman, the university works hard weaving its relatively short but highly illustrious history into the fabric of its modern reputation.

John Nash’s name, however, is frequently omitted from discussions of our most honored faculty. This is understandable from a surface perspective; Nash was only affiliated with Brandeis from 1965 to1967, long after the brilliance of his early work had given way to schizophrenic delusion. However, his massively influential academic achievements and inspiring personal story surely merit him at least a passing reference in the history of this institution, and they have left him with a highly unique list of accomplishments worthy of serious attention in its own right. How many other people can brag of winning a Nobel Prize and inspiring an Oscar-winning movie? How many others have been lost to the academic world for 30 years in the clutch of debilitating mental illness and recovered to resume productive work? Most importantly, how many can brag of making foundational discoveries that have changed the course of fields as diverse as economics and robotics?

It wasn’t until I read Sylvia Nasar’s bestselling 1998 biography “A Beautiful Mind” that I knew that Nash had been affiliated with Brandeis at all. By 1965, Nash’s delusions had already forced him to abandon his position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, caused his family to commit him to multiple mental institutions and led him to such intense paranoia that he moved to Europe and tried to renounce his United States citizenship. Even the prodigious genius of his early career could not keep his academic career from teetering on its last legs.

Thankfully, Nash had several key allies in the rapidly growing Brandeis mathematics department. His former student Joseph Kohn chaired the department, and his close friend Al Vasquez was on its faculty. They decided that Nash’s talent was worth the gamble of his fading sanity, and he was invited to take a research position without any teaching responsibilities.

For a while, it appeared that Nash’s new position had revitalized him. He retreated from social exile and frequently discussed his research with colleagues. He resumed his groundbreaking work on partial differential equations. His first year culminated in a paper, “Analyticity of Solutions of Implicit Function Problems with Analytic Data,” which was published by the prestigious journal “Annals of Mathematics” and has drawn significant praise from the mathematics community. A second paper followed soon after, though it remained unpublished until 1995.

Unfortunately, by late 1966, Nash had relapsed into a persistent delusional state, one that would sideline him for the next thirty years and threaten to consign him to the dustbin of academic history, even as his ideas were revolutionizing multiple fields of study. His thoughts turned towards numerology and mysticism, and he became convinced that foreign governments were alternately plotting to kill him and sending him messages encrypted in The New York Times. Ultimately, it seems that he didn’t quit, resign or get fired from Brandeis as much as he merely stopped showing up, and he moved to Virginia with his mother in 1967.

Ultimately, Nash’s legacy at Brandeis is mixed. Even during his periods of successful work, he seemed to consider the university as more of a stepping stone to a higher profile institution than a place where a leading mathematician would want to establish a long-term career. However, the quality of his work at Brandeis is undeniably high, and the Brandeis community in turn likely helped him remain lucid for as long as possible. So let’s keep John Nash in mind when we discuss the luminaries of our school and celebrate the small part we played in one of the most fascinating stories in the history of mathematics.