Today is the 84th birthday of the mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr., whose groundbreaking work in game theory earned him a Nobel Prize in economics, and whose troubled mental life inspired a bestselling book and Hollywood movie, A Beautiful Mind.
Nash was a 22-year-old doctoral student at Princeton when he wrote his epoch-making dissertation on noncooperative games. He provided a method of predicting the outcomes of strategic interactions between two or more rational adversaries who have knowledge of each other’s possible actions and payoffs. When no party can gain by unilaterally changing his or her strategy while the other players keep theirs, they are said to be in “Nash equilibrium.” The theory has been used to study everything from traffic patterns to currency markets. “Nash’s theory of noncooperative games,” writes Nobel Prize-winning economist Roger Myerson of the University of Chicago, “should now be recognized as one of the outstanding intellectual advances of the twentieth century. The formulation of Nash equilibrium has had a fundamental and pervasive impact in economics and the social sciences which is comparable to that of the discovery of the DNA double helix in the biological sciences.”
To celebrate today’s milestone we present the 2002 PBS film A Brilliant Madness, which tells the story of Nash’s extraordinary life: his early promise, his descent into madness, and his recovery in time to win the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The film includes interviews with Nash and his family members, friends and colleagues. It paints a fascinating picture of a person whose college professor once wrote a five-word letter of recommendation: “This man is a genius.”