What It Was Like to Glimpse John Nash’s Beautiful Mind

While finishing my dissertation at Princeton, I had the distinct pleasure of taking a seminar with John Nash. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, A Beautiful Mind, you’ll know that Nash suffered from schizophrenia and this seminar was one of his first appearances since having brought that mental ailment under control.

Not knowing what to expect, most of us signed up just for the opportunity to spend time with Nash. He was a legend. Though we’d seen him as a shadowy figure that often lurked around Firestone library with a stack of paper scribblings, none of us ever spoke to him and we were curious about what a true genius might actually say.

Strangely enough, that didn’t make everyone on the faculty happy. I remember one game theorist telling me that taking Nash’s seminar would be a “distinct waste of time”. That was an ironic comment since Nash essentially “invented” game theory — non-cooperative game theory, in particular.

Non-coop game theory is the study of how individuals or institutions might interact strategically if they don’t communicate and Nash won the 1994 Nobel Prize for presenting the first, stable solution to such a situation. If you loved the films, The Usual Suspects or LA Confidential, for example, those plots demonstrated non-cooperative game theory in its great, Hollywood form.

Surprisingly, however, Nash didn’t speak about non-coop game theory. Instead he presented the work he’d been doing on cooperative game theory. Coop-game theory is about how groups of individuals might enforce behaviour to achieve certain outcomes. Just about every spy movie with a dastardly syndicate influencing its members involves coop theory.

Yet, what made Nash’s presentation amazing was his sharp mind and wit. He simply looked at things differently. His whole approach involved painting a picture of an idea — not simply —> Read More