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

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

Nash Equilibrium

Last Saturday I had a little chat with John Nash—the tortured genius depicted by Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind. I wanted to tie up a loose end in our intertwined histories. It didn't work out quite as I had hoped.

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Though Nash is unaware of this fact, he and I go way back. When I was an undergraduate at Princeton back in the late 1970s, everybody knew who he was, though nobody seemed to know his name. He was just "some math genius who went crazy." He was the middle-aged guy in the colorful sneakers who would sit in Firestone Library or the student center and watch people.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

I remember one jarring collision with his gaze. I was in the library and had just had a fleeting social encounter. As the students I was talking to walked away, I looked up and saw Nash staring at me blankly, the way he tended to stare at things. I suddenly had this terrible feeling that he could see to my core—see through whatever pretense I had just put to social use; see through the pretense that pervades social life generally; see that I, and all other noncrazy people, are basically frauds.

Then again, maybe he just thought I was cute. There is, after all, that much-discussed evidence of his homosexual leanings in Sylvia Nasar's book A Beautiful Mind. Still, I do think that mentally ill people sometimes have flashes of unusual insight into the subterranean reality of everyday life. Normal, healthy social functioning requires a certain obliviousness to hidden agendas—our own and sometimes those of others. (As Nash once wrote in another context, "To see this strangeness, the viewer must be strange.")

Anyway, imagine my surprise when, in 1994, 15 years after graduating from Princeton, I opened the New York Times and saw a picture of the math genius who went crazy. He had won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work in game theory.

This was the first I'd heard of his involvement with game theory, something I was getting more and more interested in. Via Robert Axelrod's classic bookThe Evolution of Cooperation, I had come upon the concept of the "non-zero-sum" game, a game in which there isn't necessarily one winner and one loser, but rather the possibility of two winners—or two losers, depending on whether the players successfully cooperate. (Axelrod mentions the "Nash Equilibrium" in passing, but I hadn't made the connection—since, for one thing, I hadn't known Nash's name.)

After reading Axelrod's book, I had gotten fascinated by the idea that relations among nations are growing more non-zero-sum. For example: With nations getting more economically intertwined, their fortunes are more closely correlated, for better and for worse. So too with environmental problems like global warming and ozone depletion and exhaustion of the world's fisheries: Nations adversely affected by these problems will either cooperate to solve them and all win, or fail to solve them and all lose. And so on, in various policy areas—controlling the spread of nuclear and biological weapons, the spread of disease, etc.

It seemed to me that the growing "non-zero-sumness" among nations called for the eventual evolution of global governance—maybe not a single, centralized world government but still an unprecedented amount of institutionalized cooperation and a commensurate surrender of national sovereignty. In the mid 1990s, I got a contract to write a book making this argument and went to work on it. Meanwhile, Nasar's book about Nash came out, and one part of it caught my attention: Nash used to babble about a coming world government and had even tried to give up his American citizenship and become a citizen of the world.

Nash's world-government obsession is typically cited as a sign of his insanity. (It surfaced around the time he declared himself emperor of Antarctica and seems to have involved messianic delusions.) But, naturally, I wondered whether it might have had a rational dimension. Maybe Nash had realized that relations among nations were growing more non-zero-sum and roughly agreed with me about the implications. Maybe my world view had the endorsement of a Nobel laureate! In any event, my book came out in early 2000 under the title Nonzero, complete with a citation of a 1950 paper by Nash on bargaining in non-zero-sum games.

The year after my book came out, I re-entered Nash's geographic orbit. For a combination of professional and personal reasons, my wife and I decided to rent a house in the Princeton area for a year. A few weeks after moving in, I walked into a Princeton coffee shop and there sat Nash, intently writing equations on a huge sheet of paper. I wanted to ask him whether he had ever thought about the game-theoretic argument for world governance, but I didn't dare approach him. By now Nasar's book had won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the movie version would debut before long, and I didn't want to seem like a stargazer. Besides, he deserved his space.

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