Abel prize for a beautiful mind

Published - April 04, 2015 03:42 pm IST

File photo of professor John Nash.

File photo of professor John Nash.

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Last week, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced that the prestigious Abel prize for mathematics will be awarded this year to John Nash of Princeton University and Louis Nirenberg of Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York. The prize carries money worth US$ 765,000 and is considered equivalent in honour to the Nobel prize.

Prof. Nash is known to many as the protagonist in Ron Howard’s film “A Beautiful Mind” which traces out Nash’s life story, from when he arrived at Princeton in 1947, his work on challenging mathematical problems and finally to the time of his slow realization that he is suffering from paranoid delusions and in need of treatment. He returns to mathematics after a break of 25 years and the movie ends with his being awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 1994.

In reality, Prof. Nash’s story extends beyond the film of course, as he goes on to succeed and score again, in 2015, winning the coveted honour that is the Abel prize for his mathematical work in the field of partial differential equations.

Partial differential equations are used to describe physical phenomena of various kinds: the heat equation is one such that describes the flow of heat through a medium; quantum mechanics, the progression of sound waves, Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics, these are all described by partial differential equations. The mathematics developed by Nash and Nirenberg could be used in any of these fields.

Recognizing the value of their work, the >citation on the website of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters declares that the two mathematicians have been chosen for the prize as they have made “striking and seminal contributions to the theory of nonlinear partial differential equations and its applications to geometric analysis.” Their work is considered special also because it has applications in contexts way beyond what they originally meant it for.

Prof. Nash’s achievement is all the more spectacular in the context of the personal suffering he had to overcome. Nash suffered from paranoid delusions for nearly 25 years during which he could not productively engage with mathematics. But years of hospitalization and treatment did not affect his progress because, after the break, he came back to mathematics at Princeton University and did outstanding work in partial differential equations.

This by itself should inspire many who grapple with mental illness or substance abuse and are unable to talk about it to anyone; to those who resist medication not realizing that it could alleviate their problem to a large extent and those who simply don’t know that their disorders could be treated.

John Nash’s life stands as a powerful example of the triumph of the human spirit, the beauty and joy of mathematics and, most of all, of how mental illness can be treated and need not stand in the way of joy and success.

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