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Sylvia Nasar was an economics reporter at The New York Times in 1994 when one-time MIT math professor John Nash was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.
"When I saw John Nash's name in an AP [Associated Press] story, I jumped up and ran over to my editor," she said. "I knew I had to write that story."
Nasar did write the story, which she said is like a fairy tale or a Greek myth, for The New York Times. Hundreds of interviews and a couple of years later, she expanded the story into Nash's unauthorized biography, "A Beautiful Mind," which was published in 1998. In 2001, the book was made into an Academy Award-winning movie.
Nasar, now the John S. and James L. Knight Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, was the speaker for the Applied Mathematics Colloquium Monday in Room 10-250.
From that moment in the Times' newsroom, Nasar embarked on a remarkable journey that was as much about society's prejudices about mental illness as it was about a single man. The first problem was getting anyone to acknowledge, even as late as 1994, that Nash even had schizophrenia.
Acting largely on a hunch, Nasar interviewed members of the Royal Swedish Academy and learned that Nash's Nobel Prize was almost voted down minutes before it was announced because some members of the Academy were afraid that Nash would "embarrass" the prize with his mental illness.
She said Nash's story is "a drama about the mysteries of the human mind, but also very much a love story." She dedicated the book to Nash's wife, MIT physics graduate Alicia Larde (S.B. 1955). "She is very much the hero of this book," Nasar said.
Having received a master's degree in economics in 1976, Nasar was familiar with Nash's name when she read that AP story.
His doctoral thesis at Princeton was an equilibrium theory of noncooperative games that changed the way we think about how people make decisions. As a young faculty member at MIT in the 1950s, Nash did seminal work in the field of game theory. Of more significance to mathematicians, he solved many difficult problems in pure mathematics. "But Nash the human being had been all but forgotten," she said. "Outside a small circle of mathematicians, people assumed he was dead."
Always eccentric, Nash deteriorated into psychosis, claiming he was a messianic figure of great but secret importance. He heard voices and "deciphered" encrypted messages in The New York Times from another galaxy.
Diagnosed at age 30 with paranoid schizophrenia, he spent more than 30 years mired in illness, poverty and obscurity before almost miraculously undergoing a spontaneous remission from the disease in his 60s. Now 74, he is hard at work at Princeton University and recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation.
"His recovery was due to a combination of the natural chemistry of aging, his own struggles against his delusions and hallucinations - which he called a diet of the mind - and a few people in his life who simply refused to give up on him," Nasar said.
One of those people was Alicia Nash. Although she divorced Nash, (they remarried in June) she continued to shelter and support him and their son. Their son, John, a gifted mathematician now in his 40s, also suffers from schizophrenia.
Nasar, now working on a book about 20th-century economic thinkers, said she learned that "you can't ever try to write the last chapter of your own story. You have to keep searching, keep believing, like John and Alicia Nash, that something extraordinary is always possible."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 30, 2002.