May 27, 2015

John, Alicia Nash Remembered After Fatal Crash

NashThe tragic taxi accident that claimed the lives of John Forbes Nash and Alicia Nash late last Saturday afternoon has inspired shock and sadness in the Princeton community and across the world. The famed mathematician, 86, and his wife, 82. a scholar in her own right, were traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike to their Princeton Junction home when the car crashed about 4:30 p.m. and ejected them from the vehicle.

The taxi lost control near Interchange 8A when trying to pass another car, and crashed into the guardrail, according to New Jersey State Police. The driver was flown to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and treated for non-life-threatening injuries. The Nashes, neither of whom were said to be wearing seatbelts, were pronounced dead at the scene.

Mr. Nash’s connection to Princeton University goes back to 1950, when he earned his doctorate in mathematics. He joined the University’s mathematics department as a senior research mathematician in 1995, a year after he won the Nobel Prize for economics for his work in game theory.

In between, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which derailed his career but dissipated as he grew older. Mr. Nash’s life was the subject of Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind, which was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2002. The mathematician was portrayed by actor Russell Crowe, who commented on Twitter that he was stunned by the accident and called the couple “An amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”

University President Christopher Eisgruber commented on Sunday, “John’s remarkable achievements inspired generations of mathematicians, economists, and scientists who were influenced by his brilliant, groundbreaking work in game theory, and the story of his life with Alicia moved millions of readers and moviegoers who marveled at their courage in the face of daunting challenges.”

University economics professor Dilip J. Abreu called Mr. Nash’s work in game theory “beautiful and profound. His contributions are arguably the greatest in the field, surpassing even those of John von Neumann, the 20th century polymath and founding father of the discipline. His papers have a celestial and effortless quality, as if penned — coolly — while God murmured in his ear.”

When the accident occurred, the Nashes were heading home from Newark Liberty International Airport after a trip to Oslo where Mr. Nash was awarded the prestigious Abel Prize by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Mr. Nash was recognized for his seminal work on partial differential equations, which are used to describe the basic laws of scientific phenomena. He shared the nearly $750,000 prize with longtime colleague Louis Nirenberg, a professor emeritus at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Mr. Nirenberg told National Public Radio that the Nashes were supposed to take a limousine home, but the driver failed to show up. So they took a taxi instead.

The two men received the Abel Prize from King Harald V at a ceremony on May 19. At the event, videos about both men were aired. Mr. Nash’s voice provides narration for the feature about him, as he walks around the Princeton campus.

“I like to think of myself as being sort of like an enlightened philosopher,” he said in one part. “I think of myself as an exceptional mind and I’m specifically trained in mathematics,” he said in another. “I experience myself thinking differently from other people. This could be good if I could think of something that wasn’t what everyone could think of …. I like to think of myself as a genius, but later on I realized it’s meaningless.”

The couple met at MIT, where Alicia Nash was a physics major and John Nash taught. They married, divorced several years later, and then remarried. Mrs. Nash, a mental health advocate, is credited with saving Mr. Nash’s life during his illness, taking him back into her home and caring for him even after they had divorced. Ms. Nasar wrote in A Beautiful Mind, “It was Nash’s genius … to choose a woman who would prove so essential to his survival.”

Mary Caffrey, who worked in the University’s Office of Communications during the time the book was published, recalled working with Ms. Nash at the time. “She was so gracious, and you could hear her pride that John was finally receiving the recognition he was due,” she said. “While the Nobel certainly brought John Nash back into the academic community, I think Alicia realized that Sylvia Nasar’s remarkable book would bring John’s story to a wider audience, which, of course, it did. Alicia was wonderful to work with and I always admired her strength and devotion to her husband.”

The couple’s son Johnny Nash, who also suffers from schizophrenia, survives them. Another son from Mr. Nash’s previous relationship, John David Stier, also survives. Mather-Hodge Funeral Home is handling the memorial service, which is private. A full obituary is to be posted on the Princeton University website later this week.