John Nash's genius went beyond just maths

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 3:34am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 8:50am

The world is most familiar with American mathematics genius John Nash from the award-winning Hollywood movie A Beautiful Mind and the best-selling book it was based upon. Their documentation of the mental illness that upended his career, wrecked his marriage and plagued him with delusions gave him far-reaching celebrity. But the Nobel Prize recipient and schizophrenia sufferer who was killed with his wife, Alicia, in a car accident in the US at the weekend was influential far beyond his chosen fields of endeavour. From biology to economics to international relations to sports and beyond, his theories have practical applications.

Nash's research on game theory, which won him the Nobel Prize for economics in 1994, gave rise to one of the most important ideas in social science of the last century. Known as the Nash Equilibrium, it applies maths to decision-making and strategy to determine outcomes in situations where people are unwilling to cooperate. Even in the most complex circumstances, there is a point where no side benefits from changing course, no matter how well they know one another. It can be applied to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's rise, rivalry between mobile device companies Apple and Samsung and any competitive sporting event, among much else.

Great advances in maths also resulted from his work. He had superstar status among peers for his work in pure mathematics, particularly partial differential equations and geometry. For that, he received the world's highest accolade, Norway's Abel Prize. He died on his way home from receiving the award, the maths equivalent of the Nobel, which does not honour the discipline. No other person has won both prizes.

But Nash and his wife also worked tirelessly in their latter years for proper care for those suffering from mental illness. Their son, Johnny, also has schizophrenia and that led them to travel the world pushing for greater understanding and better treatment. Genius is, after all, about more than brilliant thinking: it is also about helping humanity look forward and improve.