In the last decade or so, I came across some intellectual celebrities in various occasions in various places. No, I don’t have any evidence of my encounters with these people, no autograph, no selfies, nada. I had some email exchanges with a couple of them but I’d keep these to myself. Also, while they’re inspirational, meeting them didn’t not make me any special. Just because they’re brilliant, genius, and famous, it doesn’t mean that I turned brilliant, genius, and famous once I met them. Unlike in scenes of many feel-good Hollywood movies, I don’t have any life-changing moments in any of these encounters. In fact, some of the stories are probably rather ordinary, as exemplified in the story I am going to tell you.
During my year at Princeton University, I rented a small studio pavilion, adjacent to somebody’s house near the Princeton Junction train station, just three miles away from campus. When I was not on campus or at home, I loved to stroll around the neighbourhood where I just was meandering, mostly talking to myself in my own head. On my walks, I regularly encountered some old folks who lived nearby. One of them was an old man with grey hair and sad eyes. He looked like a professor, so as many old men in Princeton 😉 We saw each other quite regularly and, sometimes, we smiled to each other. It’s only later, when I bumped into him on Princeton campus I realized that this tall man, who frequently wore khakis and a beige jacket suit, was John Forbes Nash, Jr! Yes, this is the same Nash that was made famous outside academia through the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” His role was convincingly played by Russell Crowe. Nash won the 1994 Nobel Memorial prize in economics, along with John C Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten, for their own on game theory, which used mathematical theorems to describe and predict the outcomes of contests, whether between individuals, states or corporations.
So, after finding out that he was the famous John Nash, I had planned to say hi and strike a small conversation. But, alas, the next time I saw him I was just able to say, “Hi”. “Hi,” he responded. That’s it. That was the only conversation we had.
Last month, I found out that Nash and his wife Alicia, died in a car accident. When I heard the news for the first time, I saw flashes of my encounters with him, in Princeton Junction neighbourhood. I did not really know him, but the loss felt personal. John Forbes Nash was not only a great mathematician and a Nobel Laureate. He was also my neighbour. A neighbour with a beautiful mind.