The Abel Prize

The last interview with John Nash

When my friends at the Norwegian Academy of Science asked me to interview the winners of the 2015 Abel Prize, I said yes, of course.  They are very, very nice people and more than that, I love Norway. What’s not to like?  The problem for me was that the Abel is one of the world’s great math prizes and I am shamingly bad at math.

The winners were Louis Nirenberg of the Courant Institute in New York over 90 but still brim full of vigour and great charm and John Nash, 86 whose life is more familiar perhaps to us than his math because of ‘A beautiful Mind’ in which he was played by Russell Crowe.  It documented his battle with schizophrenia.  I prepared more for these interviews than perhaps any other in my life.  Did by the end, I understand partial differential equations.  Dear reader, it was the North Face of the Eiger and I failed to make it to base camp.  All I can tell you is that PDEs have had an extraordinary impact in the world, making it possible to model the unpredictable.  And remember Nash also gave us the Nash Equilibrium, kickstarting Game Theory and once again, having an extraordinary impact on everything from organ donor allocation to broadband auctions.

During the interview, Nash’s voice was faint, making it hard to follow what he said.  He was very frail, with a stooping, shuffling walk – a great contrast to his wife Alicia who although only a couple of years younger seemed much more robust.  Nash was very interesting about his illness.  I asked whether there was a problem that he would have tackled had he not been so ill.  He replied something to the effect that his mind went on strike but that he was now back in control adding that being in good health does not guarantee that you can discover, let alone think through a problem – which of course is right.

There was a wonderful dinner for Nirenberg and Nash at the Akershus Castle in Oslo, in the presence of the King of Norway.  I went there with Cedric Villani, the French mathematician, media personality and spider lover (he always dresses immaculately and wears big spider brooches).

I came back to London briefly and then left for Seville for a cardiology congress. At the very moment that I was telling a group of cardiologists about my encounter with Nash, someone said they had just received a news alert on their phone.  Both Nash and his wife were dead, killed in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike.  It was deeply shocking.

The world contains all sorts of people.  Nash was challenging but he also had extraordinary insight, making leaps of intuition that almost no-one else could. He was genuinely that very rare thing.  A genius.