The Flip Side of the Medal


— Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

Unfortunately, genius often has a dark side. In the university town of Princeton, NJ, where smart people gather like exotic butterflies, no one thinks twice about it. Recently I was seated at a long dinner next to a mathematician who for the entire evening spoke not a word to me, avoided looking at me, and ate not a single bite of the dinner served. Then, as he left, he courteously bowed to me and thanked me for a wonderful evening.

Everyone here knows similar bizarre and sad stories of celebrated mathematicians. One was the logician Kurt Gödel, who was paranoid. He was so afraid of being poisoned that he would permit his food to be prepared for him only by his wife, Adele. He wound up in the Princeton hospital and, after six months, died — essentially of starvation.

Gödel’s close friend, Albert Einstein did not make it much easier on the home front. To salvage his marriage to Mileva, with whom he had two sons, he drew up a contract for her. It said, among other things, that she should expect “no intimacy from him.”
After the inevitable separation, he barely saw his first family again.

John Nash began his fight against mental illness when his wife Alicia was pregnant. Nash showed increasingly strange behavior, as described in the book and movie ,A Beautiful Mind. He was put into a mental hospital when Alicia was pregnant. When their son was born, she did not give him a name for a year, because she wanted John to participate fully in that decision.. She divorced him when their son was a toddler, but, after he wandered homelessly around Princeton, she took him back into her home seven years later out of a combination of compassion and loyalty.

When I first —> Read More