The last graceful act of a beautiful mind

nashSunday morning, May 24th: I am having breakfast with a life-long friend, Ivar Ekeland, at his kitchen table in Paris, France. He was just back from Oslo, and was telling me about the ceremony for the 2015 Abel prize, he had just attended. He was invited a few weeks before as a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science, and had declined. But once he knew that John Nash and Louis Nirenberg would be sharing the prestigious prize, he scrambled to get himself re-invited. He didn’t want to miss the historical event involving his friends and idols, who happen to be two of the most beautiful minds.

Louis Nirenberg is a very dear friend of both Ivar and I, but also of so many around the globe. It was only in 2011 that the Royal Society of Canada invited Louis to join its ranks, decades after he had been elected to almost all prestigious Academies in the world. Yet, Louis was born in Hamilton, Ontario, raised in Montreal, and had graduated from McGill before moving to NYU. Who says, we don’t have standards in Canada? 🙂

Louis received an honorary doctorate from UBC in 2010, a very special day for me and for three of my PhD students, Amir, Craig and Ramon, who had the honor of shaking his hand on stage, while receiving their diplomas. For Louis is a giant of their field of research and mine, Partial Differential Equations (PDE). I couldn’t help wondering if the King of Norway had the same trouble as our Chancellor at UBC, in trying to explain to the crowd, what those PDE creatures look like.

John Nash is the “beautiful mind” of the movie that carries that title. Life Magazine called him the genius of the century, back in the fifties when he was the genius of the century. But that was before a mental illness robbed him and humanity of his genius. Listen to my friend, Jim Colliander, talk about that side of creative powers. Nash was eventually awarded the 1994 Nobel Memorial prize in Economics for his work on mathematical game theory, which had become over the years a cornerstone of the modern theory of decision-making.

In his presentation of the work of Nash, Princeton’s Sergio Klainerman, another student of Nirenberg, didn’t mince his words“The prize has redressed a historical anomaly in the public,” he said in reference to the popularity of Nash’s game-theory work. “We mathematicians know very well that [Nash] did far deeper work much later. These are the works for which he is finally recognized today by the most prestigious mathematics prize.”

It is Nash’s work in geometry and partial differential equations that “the mathematical community regards as his most important and deepest work,” according to the academy. Not that soft game-theory stuff! Actually, it was Louis Nirenberg, who had suggested the outstanding PDE problem to Nash many decades ago, and it didn’t take long for the amazing mind to solve it.

Ekeland kept raving about the ceremony, the beautiful camaraderie between the two men, who were about to share the big prize, after having shared a whole life of agonies and triumphs. And as expected, he had stories about Louis’ notorious wit and sense of humour, always landing at the right time to save the day from those awkward moments, a permanent feature of our tribe’s social life.

Sunday afternoon, May 24th: My train had just arrived to Nancy, France and my twitter account started lighting up with the horrific news that John Nash and his wife, Alicia, were killed in a car accident.

Fate wouldn’t leave these two great men alone basking in their glorious destiny together, after more than 60 years of togetherness. Louis, John and Alicia had flown back home together from Norway. Louis’ ride was one hour late coming to pick him up at Newark airport, and since he is confined to a wheelchair, John and Alicia decided to keep him company until his ride arrived.

That was their last hour together, and the last act of kindness of the beautiful mind. Soon after, John and Alicia took their fatal Taxi ride to their home in Princeton, while a grieving Nirenberg had to fend off a barrage of reporters eager to get him to say a few precious words about his life-long friend, who could finally rest in peace.

John Nash had planned to be with us at this upcoming conference in Italy, next September. Now, it will be a tribute to his legacy.

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One Response to The last graceful act of a beautiful mind

  1. Michael Doebeli says:

    As an applied mathematician who has used game theoretical approaches extensively and has seen such approaches used in a vast array of contexts ranging from economics to psychology to evolutionary biology and philosophy, I would object to the derogatory perspective of game theory as merely “soft stuff”, and hence as something that is less worthy than “real” math. I trust that Nash’s later work was mathematically much deeper and more difficult and beautiful, but I would venture that his work on game theory was more influential by orders of magnitude when considered in the wider context of Science. Having such an impact is also a beautiful aspect of math. All too often I see a somewhat unfortunate insistence on maintaining the splendid isolation in the ivory tower among my friends in the Math Dept…

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