Born in West Virginiain 1928, Nash displayed acuity for mathematics early in his life, independently proving Fermat’s little theorem before graduating from high school.
By the time he turned 30 in1958, he was a bona fide academic celebrity. At Princeton, Nash published a 27-page thesis that upended the field of game theory and led to applications in economics, international politics, and evolutionary biology.
His signature solution – known as a “Nash Equilibrium” – found that competition among two opponents is not necessarily governed by zero-sum logic. Two opponents can, for instance, each achieve their maximum objectives through cooperating with the other, or gain nothing at all by refusing to cooperate.
This intuitive, deceptively simple understanding is regarded as one of the most important social science ideas in the 20th century, and a testament to his almost singular intellectual gifts.
But in the late 1950s, Nash began a slide into mental illness – later diagnosed as schizophrenia – that would cost him his marriage, derail his career, and plague him with powerful delusions.