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“John Nash Was A World Class Troll” – Student Recalls His Week With The Math Genius

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By Jon Hersh:

In 2007 I spent a week with John Nash in Barcelona. Ostensibly I was assisting with a paper he was writing (The agencies method for coalition formation in experimental games) but in practice I was his bit of American familiarity in a sea of Barcelonan otherworldliness.

john Nash

Here’s John and me attending a conference during that week (I’m sporting the ridiculous sideburns and proto-mullet). The woman to his left is his wife, Alicia, and that’s Reinhart Selten on the far right. Those who have had the pleasure of reading his book will note Andreu Mas-Colell to my right. For a candid shot that’s not a bad group of micro-theorists.

Prior to meeting Mr. Nash I only knew him through his work and of course through lore. He has some stunningly brilliant work in mathematics which has been overshadowed by a book and movie which details some very eccentric behavior. I was expecting someone who behaved like the movie, and was prepared to lead around a ghost of a person, or at least someone very disturbed. Throughout the week I found him to be good natured, introverted and rather banal. More like your favorite math professor from college than a man who talks to himself as a hobby.

Every day that week I would go and meet John at his hotel in l’eixample and we would go to Starbucks or to the lobby of his hotel and work on the paper. After working in the morning we would have lunch, usually with his family, and then return to work on the paper a bit more. We would take breaks to do some sight-seeing–taking a bus tour around Barcelona or walking the streets–but our days were focused around the paper. In the evenings we would have dinner with his family usually and dine and discuss economics, mathematics, or whatever the topic was at hand.

I think the best way to organize my anecdotes is to use to them to describe the conclusions I came to over the week. To be clear, I can only speak about the brief time I spent with him, and can’t speak about the other periods of his life. Really I’m only marginally qualified to speak about him at all, but here we go.

John Nash is normal math genius eccentric, but not crazy crazy.

John doesn’t act like you or me. Then again, we don’t possess the kind of brain-power he has and haven’t spent a life creating abstract proofs alone in a library. Most really good mathematicians I know share this same trait: a limited, almost muted outward persona that masks mental fireworks happening somewhere inside. If you have not been accustomed this kind of person, it can be very jarring, and you might conclude that this person is “crazy” or at least severely disturbed. But I could sense little difference in affect between him and my Russian analysis professor, both of whom would shock anyone unaccustomed to such behavior, but neither of whom are really crazy.

John Nash has a complicated family life

John was traveling with his wife, Alicia and his son, John Jr. Alicia was always pleasant, quick to smile but was relatively passive in conversation. His son, John Jr., would spend entire meals entering numbers into a cheap calculator, then jotting down simple arithmetic equations line by line into a worn notebook.

One day Prof. Nash’s son didn’t eat lunch at the restaurant with the rest of us, instead opting for McDonald’s down the street. After lunch, and trying to be social, I asked John Jr. how his lunch was. He responded, “I had a breakthrough. I was contemplating my illusions and think I understand them now.” “Oh,” I said. “That’s…good.” Then he took out his calculator and went back to adding numbers. I’m not an expert, but it struck me as if he was playing someone crazy.

John Nash seemed to have a slight internet addiction

Maybe he was bored with our discourse, but whenever there was a break he would ask to see my laptop so he could check his email. I noticed that kind of twitching restlessness you see so often with people these days. But this was before the ubiquity of internet enabled cell phones, so John would just reach for my laptop, and load up Quora (just kidding! He was reading math papers or news usually.)

John Nash isn’t anti-semitic

I mentioned to a friend I was going to meet John Nash. My friend said, half-jokingly “Better not tell him you’re Jewish!” I laughed, but this was before I met John and so I was legitimately worried about revealing this information. During dinner one night he asked me “Jon, tell me where is your family from?” I decided to hedge my answer. “Well, you know, Russia and Romania mostly.” But then I thought of all the holocaust films my parents made me watch as a child so I quickly blurted out: “We’re Jewish.” He nodded and we went to the next topic of conversation. The idea that he’s anti-semitic is pretty ridiculous. I can’t speak for the past, but he seems to have no problem interacting with Reinhart Selten, who is himself Jewish, and about 13% of Princeton which is Jewish as well.

John Nash is a world class troll.

This is entirely subjective, but I think it it’s illustrative. John would sometimes do or say strange things that he could get away with saying because people thought he was crazy. For example, at one point during the conference a student asked to have his picture taken with John. He agreed and the student handed me the camera, and when I pointed the camera at the two, John turned to the left, obscuring himself in the frame so that only his profile would be showing in the photo. I looked at him when he turned around and John seemed to wink at me, or acknowledge that he had played a joke. Perhaps this was his way of diffusing the attention, or some personal game he was playing because he could.

Another anecdote, when we were working on the paper we had to do some quick calculations and add three numbers: 30, 40 and 50. Obviously the answer is 120, but for some reason John said it was 100. Why did he make such an obvious arithmetic mistake? Was it just to see if we were paying attention? Or maybe he was only half paying attention.

The best parts were spending time with John and just shooting the shit with him. I asked about what it was like to go from West Virginia to Princeton, since I had made a similar move from Kansas to Chicago. He said they made fun of him for saying “ya’ll” so he quickly dropped that from his pattern of speech.

The one regret I had from the week was that I had to back out of a hike to Mont Juic with John and Prof. Selten. I had an exam the following week (in micro no less) and needed to spend the weekend studying. In fact, whenever we had a spare moment I would break out MWG and look over pages of proofs, some of which John himself had proven decades ago. I remember looking over one such proof in the lobby of his hotel, where we sat waiting to go to dinner. There was a particularly thorny part I couldn’t understand, and it was in game theory no less, so I lean over to John and ask him if he could explain it to me.

His response was most telling: “No. I have no idea how that’s solved.”

Originally published on Quora by Jon Hersh.

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