I am an engineer. In 2005 I was involved in a company designing high-speed computer networking hardware and systems. Coming down to the old “Dinky” train station in Princeton, I encountered John Nash. I had known his son John since he was 15. He asked me what I was doing. After telling him some of the challenges of doing high speed networking, he replied, “have you thought of this?” What he described is now known as channel bonding, but after two years of working on this project we had not considered it. A beautiful mind indeed, who could come up with an instant answer in an impromptu meet-up.
Nash was quite sane and clear-minded at that time and remained so until his tragic death. He was not always so. For years I had seen him walking slowly along Nassau Street, often chain-smoking. Or, he was in Firestone Library’s lobby sitting and staring. The scene was repetitive and boring. A day in the life of the real John Nash was not the material for an entertaining movie. But in our meeting, he also said, “you know my son John suffers from mental illness.” And he said it in a tone as if he had never been there and done that!
When the movie “A Beautiful Mind” was made, telling the story of the Nobel Prize winner’s struggle with schizophrenia, I signed on for a bit part, that of an academic. We were on the set 19 hours of one day and got digitally multiplied to look like an auditorium full of 2,500 people. The filming was done in the Newark Performing Arts Center, which was used to represent an auditorium in Scandinavia. After about a dozen hours of hurry-up-and-wait and only one meal, a lot of the extras were getting crotchety. For me, it helped having been a graduate student, since we had become immune to horribly long hours! Russell Crowe, although somewhat foul-mouthed, was friendly to the actors and helped us get through the tedious day. Ron Howard, the director, was quiet and capable.
Apparently Nash and his wife liked the movie, but liked the book better. Some liberties had to be taken, including showing visual hallucinations, and making Nash a more charming figure on-screen than in real life. Film is a visual medium, but the real Nash only had auditory hallucinations.
John Jr. (there are actually two of them, the younger one I knew) has resembled his father in many ways. After high school, he enrolled in Rider College and studied math. Most Rider students are studying business or education (I was on the faculty at the time.) John Jr. studied with math department chairman Ken Fields, a very capable mathematician. Ken would give him a book and tell him, “read the book, work out the problems, and I will assign you a course number and a grade.” He was soon on to Rutgers for a PhD. After that he alternated between institutionalization, becoming a chess master, and working for companies solving problems. When the Burger King was in town, I would often see him come in, order food, and work on a chess board while eating.
How did John Sr. snap out of insanity and futility? He claims that he did not use drugs and I had good corroboration that that is true. In the movie, Nash says he knows he has a problem, but that he will solve it, because that is what he does. The psychiatrist replies, “You will not solve it because the problem is with your mind.” That was 1950s psychiatry.
Today, thanks to tools we did not have in 1950 such as functional MRI, we know the brain is made of components. Some may be functioning well and others not. Nash used some functioning parts of his mind to test others. If he observed a situation, he asked several other persons what they perceived. If they agreed with what he saw, he said to himself, it is confirmed. If several agreed with each other but not with him, he said, I reject this. After a while, he snapped out of it.
A “self-exorcism?” Not many have the ability to do this, but in effect this seems to be what happened in the case of John Nash.
Arch Davis runs a Princeton-based computer consulting firm, Davis Systems Engineering, www.davisys.com.