Princeton community remembers John Nash Jr. and Alicia Nash

Oct. 26, 2015 9:42 a.m.

Members of the Princeton community came together Saturday, Oct. 24, to remember the beautiful minds and hearts of two of its beloved members, Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash Jr. and his wife, Alicia, who were killed in an automobile crash May 23. He was 86, she was 82.

The daylong event included lectures on Nash's mathematical legacy followed by a public talk by Sylvia Nasar, the author of the book, "A Beautiful Mind," which brought to light Nash's long struggle with mental illness and formed the basis for the 2001 Academy Award-winning film of that title. The day concluded with a service of remembrance in the Princeton University Chapel, where speakers included friends, family and members of the University.

John and Alicia Nash

The Princeton community remembered John Nash Jr. and Alicia Nash at a daylong event on the University campus on Saturday, Oct. 24. The Nashes died in an automobile accident on May 23. Above, the Nashes are pictured at a March 25 reception hosted by the Princeton Department of Mathematics in honor of Nash's receipt of the 2015 Abel Prize from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. (Photo by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

The story of John and Alicia Nash touched many people, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in a letter read at the service by Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary at Princeton. 

"When John and Alicia died, I received notes of condolence sent to Princeton University from around the globe — from academics and alumni, from sultans and socialites, from people who would not ordinarily take an interest in the life or death of a mathematician, even one who was a Nobel laureate," Eisgruber said. 

"The world felt a personal connection to John and Alicia Nash, and people around the globe felt a personal loss when they died so suddenly. Through the magnificence of John's achievements, their shared courage in the face of his illness, and the many unexpected turns in their remarkable lives, John and Alicia embodied for millions of people both the exhilaration of human aspiration and the sorrow of human tragedy."

Nash, who received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994, was associated with Princeton for nearly 70 years and was a legendary figure in the University's Department of Mathematics. He had held the position of senior research mathematician at Princeton since 1995.

Sylvia Nasar

Sylvia Nasar, left, author of "A Beautiful Mind" based on Nash's life, gave a talk at the event. Nasar's book was the basis for the 2001 Academy Award-winning film of that title. (Photo by Mark Czajkowski for the Office of Communications)

In her remarks, Nasar, the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia University, called the day of remembrance "a very, very meaningful occasion."

She said she became interested in writing about Nash when in 1994 she learned that he was on the shortlist to win the Nobel Prize in economics, despite a three-decade-long descent into schizophrenia and a rare recovery from the disease later in life. "Someone who was lost for so long, and someone who had fallen as far as John Nash had fallen, the idea that someone like that could come back just struck me as incredible," she said. "It was something plucked out of a fairytale, a Greek myth or a Shakespeare play."

Nash's story also was compelling because during the three decades of his illness, his ideas had become influential in disciplines as disparate as economics and biology, geometry and partial differential equations, Nasar said. 

"The irony was that as the years went by and his earlier work became more and more important in different fields, he himself sank deeper and deeper into poverty, illness and obscurity," she said. 

Nasar said that Nash's survival through years of mental illness and his eventual recovery were due to the strength and loyalty of Alicia. When Alicia realized that her husband was becoming ill, Nasar said, "She responded courageously with great compassion and enormous dignity." 

"It was love," Nasar said of Alicia's motivation for helping her husband through times that were so difficult that the couple divorced in 1963, although Alicia continued to support him, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to commute to her job in New York City. The couple remarried in 2001.

Kirsti Strom Bull

At the service of remembrance in the Princeton University Chapel, Kirsti Strøm Bull, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, recalls the "tremendous shock for the whole academy and the mathematical community" upon learning of the Nashes' deaths. The Nashes were returning home after receiving the Abel Prize in Oslo, Norway, when their taxi crashed. (Photo by Mark Czajkowski for the Office of Communications)

Nasar, who spent a year in Princeton conducting interviews with Nash's colleagues and friends in preparation for writing "A Beautiful Mind," observed, "We may not see the likes of John Nash again, but his story will belong to the ages." 

At the remembrance service, speakers praised Alicia's courage and perseverance under challenging circumstances.

Alicia was active in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni club and served over the years as the club's president and on its board of directors, noted a friend of the Nashes, David Smith, president of the MIT Club of Princeton, who remembered Alicia as outgoing and said, "She truly knew what friendship was."

"The Nash family would not have survived without her tenacious strength and courage," Smith said.

One of 16 women among the 800 or so students in the 1955 graduating class, Alicia met John when she was studying physics and he was teaching at MIT, Smith said. During the many years of his illness, Alicia worked as a computer programmer and data analyst to support John and their son, John Charles Martin Nash, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his teens. Later, his parents became active in the mental health community, attending fundraisers and giving speeches to raise awareness about mental illness.

James Manganaro, a family friend who met John in an introductory calculus class that Nash taught at MIT in 1955-56, remembered him for his precise use of English, his subtle sense of humor and his ability to "present freshman math with crystal clarity and with the faint flickering of a southern twang" traceable to Nash's upbringing in West Virginia.

Louis Nirenberg

Louis Nirenberg, professor of mathematics, emeritus, at the Courant Institute at New York University, praises Nash's intellect. Nirenberg was co-winner of this year's Abel Prize and was in Oslo with the Nashes for the prize ceremony. (Photo by Mark Czajkowski for the Office of Communications)

Louis Nirenberg, professor of mathematics, emeritus, at the Courant Institute at New York University, praised Nash's intellect. "Whatever of his work that I read, I always had the feeling, 'I would have never thought of that,'" he said.

Nash and Nirenberg were co-winners of the 2015 Abel Prize, awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and considered one of the highest honors in mathematics, for "striking and seminal contributions to the theory of nonlinear partial differential equations and its applications to geometric analysis." The Nashes were killed while returning home from the Abel Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, when their taxi crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike.

"It was a tremendous shock for the whole academy and the mathematical community," said Kirsti Strøm Bull, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, speaking at the memorial service. She called their deaths "deeply tragic."

Also speaking at the service was Nash's son, John David Stier, who was born to Nash and Eleanor Stier prior to Nash's marriage to Alicia. Stier became close to his father and Alicia after his father's recovery from mental illness. 

"It is plain to see why my father chose Princeton University and the surrounding community to be his permanent home," Stier said. "Here is a place where he was always accepted and never criticized, and was allowed to be himself."

John David Stier

Nash's son John David Stier commends the friends Nash had in the mathematics department, noting "it is plain to see why my father chose Princeton University and the surrounding community to be his permanent home." (Photo by Mark Czajkowski for the Office of Communications)

Stier remarked on the loyal friendships of Nash's colleagues in the Department of Mathematics. "Princeton is and will always be a remarkable place for me," Stier said. "The Nobel Prize, the Abel Prize and the creation of the Academy Award-winning movie would never have happened without the courage of the man himself and the steadfast friendships of the great friends, such as professors Joseph Kohn, Edward Nelson and Harold Kuhn," Stier said. "With friends like these, in this great university, it was impossible for my father to stay in the darkness forever."

In conclusion, Alison Boden, dean of religious life and of the chapel, said: "As we pursue our own busy lives, may the memory of John and Alicia Nash spur in us all a deeper commitment to the pursuit of what is truthful, to integrity, to understanding and compassion for any who suffer, and to the welfare of all. May peace be upon them and upon us all."

Nash Memorial Singers

The Princeton University Chapel Choir sings during the service, including music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Nash's favorite composer. (Photo by Mark Czajkowski for the Office of Communications)

The service included music by Johann Sebastian Bach — a favorite composer of Nash's — and James Whitbourn. Music was performed by University Organist Eric Plutz and the Princeton University Chapel Choir, led by Penna Rose.

Earlier in the day, the mathematics department held four talks celebrating the life and work of Nash in mathematics and economics. The talks were: "Contributions to Economics and Game Theory" (Eric Maskin, Adams University Professor at Harvard University); "The Pity of It All — What J. Nash Accomplished in Analysis in Just Three Papers" (Sergiu Klainerman, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton); "Problems Left Unsolved" (Mikhail Gromov, Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques and New York University); and "Nash's Work in Algebraic Geometry" (János Kollár, the Donner Professor of Science and professor of mathematics at Princeton).