Sylvia Nasar on Fame, Depression, and John Nash

Last Thursday night Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind was on campus as part of a mental health awareness campaign put on by the graduate school. Given the sparse attendance in the large Rackham auditorium I’m not sure whether the awareness campaign is making much headway. The story of John Nash is an interesting one, to be sure, but I’m not sure it’s an encouraging one for graduate students. Nash, for those of you who don’t know, is the Nobel prize winning mathematician who infamously went crazy, schizophrenia to be precise, for thirty odd years after a meteoric rise to a pinnacle of the math world.

One of the SI foundation courses this semester has been obsessed with Nash, or at least as obsessed as any contemporary economics course seems to be. Nash equilibrium was the catch phrase that led us through most of game theory. Brilliant and interesting stuff.

But I’m more interested in the story of Nash himself. Nasar said she was attracted to the story because it’s one of the few stories that have a third act. We’re all accustomed to the meteoric rising star who later crashes to earth, but it’s much more uncommon to come back from such straits and rise to levels unreached before. Mathematics, especially, is hard on it’s young. The whole idea of being a has-been after reaching the age of thirty seems harsh in the extreme. I guess any ideas that I might go back to study math should be shelved now. It’s hard enough returning to school after time in the workforce. There have been more than a few times when I’ve felt that academia wants fresh blood much more than it wants experience.