Knowing that history and those peculiarities of mathematics and mathematicians, strange behaviors –extended solitude, writing equations on walls, a frenetic pace to develop solutions, mumbling to themselves in public – probably did not seem so far outside the norm among his brethren at Princeton University.
Nash’s mental illness, as it was identified at least, first began to manifest itself as erratic behavior and then paranoia. First, there was the communist conspiracy against him. He mailed letters to embassies in Washington, D.C. declaring that the communists were declaring a government. Then, there were the aliens. And, finally, his psychological battles broke into his professional life at an incomprehensible lecture he gave at Columbia University in 1959.
The popular convection of Nash’s story is about the connection between brilliance and madness, and it gives hope to those whose creativity and intelligence appear linked to their mental illness. It screams that you have both sanity and brilliance. I believe that it is possible – but it’s hard to not look at Nash’s story, and those of many others in similar positions, and think that you might just have to give up a little of one of those things for the other.
What makes Nash's life so painful for me is that it does not provide any clear answers about the interconnections between brilliance and madness or whether, as some have argued, that people like him can have one without the other. It does not make the case I want it to make -- that you can be in treatment and still be brilliant.
Hearing Nash speak several years ago at the University of Maryland at College Park struck me in a number of ways -- one of them particularly relevant to this discussion. Nash was discussing game theory. And, I and those around me, including leading mathematicians of the day, did not understand a word he said. In our group that day, we all thought that it was simply because his mind operated on a different plane than ours -- that we just were not smart enough to understand it.
Now that I better understand his life, I wonder whether it wasn't just that he was so brilliant that we did not understand him. Perhaps he was just so mad that we could not understand him.