Close—and not so close—encounters with a Beautiful Mind.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
March 22 2002 11:08 AM

Nash Equilibrium

(Continued from Page 1)

Months later, I saw Nash again in the same coffee shop a few blocks from a theater where the movie about him was now playing. At the table next to him a man sat down and started reading A Beautiful Mind, apparently oblivious to the fact that Nash was 6 feet away, just as Nash was oblivious to what the man was reading. Again, I didn't approach.

Advertisement

Then last week I was attending a conference called "Science and Ultimate Reality," sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Nash wasn't part of the conference, but during a break I spotted him chatting with Freeman Dyson, the eccentric physicist and cosmic speculator. I started to approach, then hesitated. As I deliberated, Nash and Dyson started walking away. I followed at a distance. They walked down a corridor tentatively, as if looking for something or someone. Then, apparently frustrated, they backtracked. I backtracked in back of them. They walked into the main auditorium, where people were taking their seats in preparation for the next session. I followed. By now I was, to any objective observer, a stalker.

Finally, as Dyson was leading Nash across the auditorium, I said, "Dr. Nash?" Nash stopped, turned around, and looked at me. "I was just wondering if you've ever thought about relations among nations in game theoretic terms—whether you think relations have gotten more non-zero-sum over time." He looked down at my name tag and then said, without much expression, that, no, he hadn't thought much about game theory as it applies to international politics.

Then he looked me dead in the eye, as if he had something of true importance to convey. I waited for the message. "I'm looking for the DeWitts," he said. "Do you know the DeWitts?" I said no. He walked off.

I felt let down, but before long I was successfully rationalizing the situation. Maybe, I thought, Nash wasn't being truthful—with me or even with himself. After all, was it really plausible that a man whose career was centered around game theory had never applied it to the newspaper headlines? (As Nasar's book makes clear, the links between game theory and nuclear disarmament, and between nuclear disarmament and the case for world government, were in the air in Nash's circles at mid-century.)

Besides, would Nash's endorsement of my worldview have amounted to vindication anyway? When my book came out, arguing that world governance is the only long-run alternative to world chaos, some people dismissed me as crazy. Did I really need a blurb from a renowned schizophrenic?

The next night I found myself in a hotel in Amelia Island, Fla. I had just laid out my non-zero-sum-centric worldview to business executives at a conference hosted by Information Week magazine. (Info technology is the great mediator of non-zero-sum games, which is why big changes in it shake up the world.) Sitting on my hotel bed, channel-surfing, I happened upon an interview with Ron Howard, director of A Beautiful Mind. He shared something he'd learned while discussing his movie with Nash: There are big chunks of Nash's life, especially during the periods of intense mental illness, that Nash simply doesn't remember.

Well that explains it! Satisfied, I went to bed.

  Slate Plus
Working
Nov. 27 2014 12:31 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 11 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a helicopter paramedic about his workday.