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A Beautiful Mind, an Amazing Couple: Community Mourns the Loss of John and Alicia Nash

A recent photo of John and Alicia Nash from Zach Smith and Maria Ivarsson of the Color Crew.
A recent photo of John and Alicia Nash from Zach Smith and Maria Ivarsson of the Color Crew.

 

The world mourned the loss of John and Alicia Nash on Sunday as word of their deaths spread on news websites and social media.

While many expressed shock and sadness over the loss of a mathematical genius, others gave thanks for the couple’s story, depicted in the book and movie “A Beautiful Mind,” that helped destigmatize mental illness.

“We’ve lost two great people, as she was a scholar in her own right and a devoted wife and advocate for persons with mental illness,” wrote one Planet Princeton reader.

“The world lost two important people yesterday,” wrote another reader. “John and Alicia each had something very important to teach us.”

It was common for Princeton area residents to see John Nash taking his beloved Dinky train between his home in Princeton Junction and downtown Princeton. At 86, he was still a daily fixture on the Princeton University campus and was often seen in the Princeton U Store. Many residents recalled his gentle spirit.

“Having seen him a couple times speaking at Princeton the last decade, will never forget the humility and candor with which he spoke,” wrote one reader.

Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber said in a statement Sunday that the school community was stunned upon hearing news reports about the deaths of John and Alicia Nash in a car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike Saturday afternoon. The couple was returning from the airport after a trip to Norway, where John Nash received the Abel Prize in Mathematics last week.

“We are stunned and saddened by news of the untimely passing of John Nash and his wife and great champion, Alicia. Both of them were very special members of the Princeton University community,” Eisgruber said.

“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,” he said.

In a tribute piece at Time.com, Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study, wrote that one consistent element of Nash’s work was that he was always going in directions that were either thought to be impossible, or actively discouraged.

“It’s amazing the problems he was thinking of. They were really the biggest problems in mathematics,” Dijkgraaf wrote. “People think that there are these very big problems that everyone’s working on, but people simply cannot find the internal courage to address the bigger issues. Nash suffered for that; he was really a mathematician that pushed his mind to go far, far beyond where other peoples’ would dare to go.”

Nash’s life story was told in the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2002. The Nashes were portrayed by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.

Crowe said on Twitter that he was stunned by the Nashes’ deaths.  “Stunned. My heart goes out to John and Alicia and family,” he wrote. “An amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”

The National Alliance for Mental Illness described the movie as a breakthrough of historic proportions when it was released:

“It is authentic. Although John Nash’s story has been fictionalized, with some edges smoothed over, the essential portrayal is realistic. For our community, it hits home. It speaks many truths…Director Ron Howard, actor Russell Crowe and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman deserve more than Oscars. They deserve their own prize for bridging the gap between entertainment and broad public education about schizophrenia — an illness which is too often misunderstood and marked by stigma in popular culture…The positive impact of A Beautiful Mind for people with severe and persistent brain disorders, and for society as a whole, will go far beyond what the filmmakers could ever have imagined.”

A native of Bluefield, West Virginia, Nash received his doctorate in mathematics from Princeton in 1950 and his graduate and bachelor’s degrees from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1948. Nash joined the Princeton mathematics department as a senior research mathematician in 1995.

Nash won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994 for his work in game theory. He said in a video about the honor that the prize had a  tremendous impact on his life. He was 66, was unemployed at the time, and was starting to collect Social Security.

“It had a tremendous impact on my life, more than most prize winners, because I was in an unusual situation,” he said. “I’d become widely known, but in a sense it wasn’t officially recognized.”

The 2015 Abel Prize in Mathematics from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters went to Nash for his work in partial differential equations, which are used to describe the basic laws of scientific phenomena. On March 25, colleagues celebrated the announcement.

At the event, Michail Rassias, a visiting postdoctoral research associate in mathematics who was working on a book with Nash described Nash as an open person with an easy and friendly manner.

“Working with him is an astonishing experience. He thinks differently than most other mathematicians I’ve ever met. He’s extremely brilliant and has all this experience,” Rassias said. “If you were a musician and had an opportunity to work with Beethoven and compose music with him, it’d be astonishing. It’s the same thing.”

During the reception, Nash recited the mathematicians who had won the prize and the mathematicians that inspired them when asked how he felt about being a recipient.

“The Abel Prize is top-level among mathematics prizes,” he said. “There’s really nothing better.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • RESIDENT

    I run a program for people with special needs. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting John or Alicia Nash, I was blown away by both the book and the movie.They made me think of “different” people differently, and motivated me to do the volunteer work I do now. The Nash family made a huge difference, and not just at the University. My gratitude, and sincere sympathies, to their and friends.

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