The Final Days of John Nash

Mathematician John Nash, center, meets children at a
Mathematician John Nash, center, meets children at a “math circus,” a day of math games, in Bergen, Norway, on May 21. He is seen here with Dagga Rune Olsen, rector of the University of Bergen, and Bergen Mayor Trude Drevland. (Anne-Marie Astad, Courtesy Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters)

From his modest two-story home at the foot of a busy intersection in Princeton Junction, John Nash set out on May 16 to celebrate what he considered the highest honor of a storied career in mathematics.

There had been other awards, other moments of international fame. A Nobel Prize for economics in 1994. A trip to the Academy Awards in 2002, when “A Beautiful Mind” — the film based on Nash’s life — received the Oscar for best picture.

But to Nash, the Abel Prize — a pure math award recommended by an esteemed international committee — trumped it all.

“There’s really nothing better,” he said after learning he’d won.

Nash’s abrupt, violent end on the pavement of the New Jersey Turnpike Saturday followed what the Abel Prize’s co-winner, Louis Nirenberg, called a “dream week” in Norway for both men, who were hailed by their peers as “towering figures” and “mathematical giants.”

Nash and his wife, Alicia, had a personal audience with King Harald V, pored over the works of the famed artist Edvard Munch, met the world’s top-rated chess player and watched from the Parliament building as children paraded by in traditional Norwegian dress.

Mostly, they talked about math: theorems and equations so advanced they’re understandable to only a small subset of the world’s population. Nash, reserved and soft-spoken, became more animated during those discussions, excited by the nuances of his life’s passion, according to those present.

The deaths of Nash, 86, and Alicia Nash, 82, as they returned home from Norway was a bitter irony for Nirenberg, who has known the couple since the 1950s.

“Just the horror of it after this wonderful week, it’s unimaginable,” said Nirenberg, 90, a Manhattan resident and a professor emeritus at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. “They clearly had a very good time.”

State Police said the Nashes, seated in the rear of a taxi, were not wearing seat belts when the driver lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a guardrail in Monroe Township. Both were ejected and pronounced dead at the scene. The driver has not been charged, though the investigation continues.

The Abel Prize — a thick rectangle of glass imprinted with the image of Niels Henrik Abel, a 19th century Norwegian mathematician — was with them, in their luggage, when they died.

An audience with the king

Banners proclaimed their arrival.

Along a main boulevard in Oslo, the streamers hung from streetlamps, announcing the annual awarding of the Abel Prize, said Nirenberg, who arrived May 15.

The Nashes flew in a day later and were ensconced in the Abel Suite on the seventh floor of the Hotel Continental, Nirenberg said.

The days that followed would be a whirlwind of interviews and events in a country where the study of numbers is promoted and celebrated with “math circuses” for children. Newspapers and television stations chronicled the events in detail.

If Nirenberg and Nash were akin to rock stars, Nash was the more popular act, a consequence of “A Beautiful Mind,” Nirenberg said. The film, starring Russell Crowe and loosely based on Nash’s decades-long struggles with schizophrenia, grossed more than $300 million worldwide.

“People were much more curious with him than with me because of the movie,” Nirenberg said. Even so, both men were stopped in the hotel’s lobby or at the elevator doors by fans eager to shake hands or share a quick conversation, he said.

At the royal palace, King Harald greeted them warmly and jokingly recounted one of the rigors of his job: standing ceremonially for two hours on a palace balcony in the cold as the parade of costumed children went by the previous day, Nirenberg said.

“The king was very cordial and easy to talk to,” he said.

John Nash 1
John Nash, left, and his wife, Alicia, are greeted by Norways, King, Harald V, during a visit to the royal palace in Oslo. (Courtesy Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters)

Nash wasn’t unaccustomed to celebrity. His 1994 Nobel Prize in economics — awarded for his work on game-theory, or the mathematics of decision-making — announced him to the world at large. For a time, the 2001 film made him a household name.

But Nash hardly lived a celebrity’s life. In Princeton Junction, a section of West Windsor, the Nashes shared a 957-square-foot house, assessed at $240,000, with one of their two sons, records show. They ate at local diners. When the mayor of West Windsor asked to name a section of park after Nash, he politely declined.

Nash brought that same humble quality to Oslo.

During the May 19 awards ceremony, he announced that he had written an acceptance speech at the request of the award’s sponsor, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. He then added that he was declining to read it because he wanted to express the “simple principle” of thanks, according to a video of the event. He spoke for just over a minute.

In the audience of about 600, Rutgers University mathematics professor Endre Szemeredi, a recipient of the Abel Prize in 2012, said he was touched by the interplay between Nash and his wife, who had helped him through his decades of mental illness.

Married in 1957, the couple divorced in 1962, but John Nash soon returned to live with her. They remarried in 2001. Widely known as Nash’s protector and champion, Alicia Nash watched from the first row as her husband received the Abel Prize.

Szemeredi, reached by telephone in his native Hungary, said very strict protocols governed the ceremony and its aftermath. At the conclusion, the Abel laureates and other dignitaries were to walk from the dais up an aisle in formal fashion.

When it came time for Nash, he stopped at the first row, turned to his left and looked longingly at his wife, Szemeredi said.

“It was a beautiful moment, very moving,” said Szemeredi, who was seated behind Alicia Nash. “His wife was standing by then, and he just looked at her, like he was wanting her to walk with him. She waved to him — ‘just go’ — and he went. It was very, very nice.”

Throughout the trip, Nash was a man of few words. Perhaps because of his age, perhaps because of his nature, he observed more than he spoke, according to those who spent time with him.

Apt to simply listen during conversations involving multiple people, he was more engaging in one-on-one talks, said Kirsti Strom Bull, the academy’s president.

“He was quiet, but when we were together, he was the one asking questions,” Bull said. “He was very kind, very curious. He asked me a lot about Norwegian issues.”

At Nash’s request, Bull escorted the mathematician and his wife to the Munch Museum, dedicated to the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (pronounced Moonk), most famous for the haunting painting “The Scream.”

The museum at the time had mounted an exhibit comparing Munch’s work to that of Vincent Van Gogh. The Nashes, engrossed, spent two hours looking over the paintings.

“He was extremely interested in that exhibit,” Bull said.

On two occasions, at universities in Oslo and Bergen, on Norway’s west coast, Nash was called on to give 15-minute talks to assembled mathematicians. Though tired from the hectic schedule, he perked up during the speeches, his voice growing stronger, his enunciation clearer.

“He talked about math — his math — and he was quite clear,” said Maria J. Esteban, a member of the committee that recommended Nash for the Abel Prize and a professor of mathematics at the University of Paris-Dauphine. “I turned to the person to the right of me and said, ‘My God, he’s much more present.'”

Later, when he returned to his seat in front of Esteban, Nash turned around and smiled at her.

“It was one of the few smiles I saw from him,” she said. “And then he left and I never saw him again.”

A last-minute change in travel plans

They’d been scheduled to fly home Saturday afternoon, but the vagaries of air travel altered their plans. Nirenberg, booked on the same flight with his wife and the Nashes, said United Airlines informed them their plane was running hours late.

To avoid inconveniencing them, the airline had taken the liberty of booking them on an SAS flight scheduled for Saturday morning, Nirenberg said.

They arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport between noon and 1 p.m., he recalled. Nirenberg called his daughter for a ride, but it would be at least an hour before she arrived.

Because of the earlier flight, the Nashes’ car service wasn’t there to greet them, and the couple didn’t have a cell phone. They waited with the Nirenbergs in terminal B, chatting to pass the time.

“Their spirits were very good, both of them,” Louis Nirenberg said. “He was unhappy the limo wasn’t there, but otherwise he was fine. We talked about their son. We talked about the trip.”

At one point, they pulled out their Abel Prizes, realizing for the first time that King Harald had given each man the other’s award during the ceremony days earlier. With a chuckle, they swapped, Nirenberg said.

When Nirenberg’s daughter arrived, the Nashes used her cell phone to try the car service, but the company was unable to get a vehicle there quickly, the mathematician said.

As a last resort, they opted for a taxi.

Nirenberg shook hands with his old friend, telling him they would get together in the fall.

The Nashes walked away.

Read the story on (May 29, 2015)

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