Monday, 25 May 2015

John Nash: warmth in a long divorce, now sadness in a final separation

It’s not hard to believe – particularly if like me you’ve had the personal experience – that a marriage lasting over thirty years can be highly enriching. But what about a 38-year divorce? It’s a little surprising that it too can be the basis of a deep, caring relationship. To say nothing of a rebirth of intellectual endeavour.

John Forbes Nash, who died with his wife Alicia on 23 May 2015, married her in 1957. At that time, he had already done the work on games theory which won him his PhD then, and a shared Nobel Prize in Economics forty years later.

In 1959, he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. The strain of coping with his condition led to the breakdown of their marriage, and in 1963 John and Alicia divorced.

He was repeatedly hospitalised, always, he claimed, against his will, between then and 1970. He disliked psychiatric treatment and, in particular, anti-psychotic drugs. Instead, he preferred to draw on his internal forces and train himself to avoid certain delusional lines of thinking. Once he’d learned to recognise them, he felt he could push them aside and focus on rational ideas, which meant being able to return to mathematical research. He explained in 1994:

…gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation. This began, most recognisably, with the rejection of politically oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort. So at the present time I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists.

Despite their divorce, Alicia continued to be involved in his care. On his discharge from hospital, he moved back into her home, as a boarder. So she worked with him on the long fight against his delusions. She was at his side when he took his Nobel prize, as shown in the film made of his life, A beautiful mind, from the biography by journalist Sylvia Nasar. In 2001, Alicia and he remarried – 38 years after their divorce.

John and Alicia Nash in 2002
By that time, he’d long since been allowed to return to his research at Princeton and later to teaching. It was fitting that he won another prestigious prize at the end of his life: the Abel prize, viewed by many as the Nobel prize for Mathematics, since there is no actual Nobel in the field. He shared it with fellow mathematician Luis Nierenberg, for work on partial differential equations (please don’t expect me to explain them – I’d have to try to understand them first).

He was 86, his wife of six then twelve years, was 82. They had travelled to Norway to collect the prize together just last week, on 19 May. They were in the back of a taxi returning from Newark airport from that trip when the driver lost control, and they were both thrown out and killed.

At least they went out on a high, and quickly. And yet it seems a terrible waste of so much brilliance – and of so much warmth. Russell Crowe, who played Nash in the film, tweeted that they were “beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.”

A tribute to just how supportive, and fruitful, a 38-year divorce can be between two exceptional people.

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