Skip to content ↓

MIT facts meet fiction in 'A Beautiful Mind'

Mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., an MIT faculty member from 1951-59, gained fame in 1994 when he won a Nobel Prize in economics and again in 2001 when the movie " A Beautiful Mind " was released.

The movie, which is about Nash's 25-year struggle with schizophrenia, was nominated Tuesday for eight Academy Awards , including best picture and best actor (Russell Crowe).

In real life, Nash was appointed a C.L.E. Moore instructor in 1951. While at MIT, he solved a classical unsolved problem relating to differential geometry. He taught classes, and met and married MIT physics major Alicia Larde (S.B. 1955). And it was during his tenure at MIT that he began to be consumed by the disease that he would later almost miraculously overcome.

In the movie, Nash is said to win a prestigious appointment to MIT's Wheeler Laboratory after he receives a doctorate from Princeton University. Wheeler Lab is portrayed as a large turn-of-the-century stone building encompassing classrooms and offices.

But this was one of several points at which the movie took poetic license. "There is not and never has been any Wheeler Lab at MIT," said Institute Professor Isadore M. Singer, who, like Nash, was a C.L.E. Moore instructor in the 1950s. "In fact, I recognized nothing about MIT in the movie."

Because costs were a concern (the film had a lower budget than a typical Hollywood production), scenes depicting MIT and Harvard were actually shot at Bronx Community College and at Manhattan College, with the rest on location at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Prior to filming, director Ron Howard and members of his crew visited the MIT campus to scout locations and interview faculty members who knew Nash, including Professors Hartley Rogers and Arthur P. Mattuck of mathematics. Mattuck also was quoted extensively in Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash with the same title.

The crew visited the Department of Mathematics in Building 2, spending time in the common room and several offices that are similiar to the one occupied by Nash. They also explored the campus and were enchanted by Killian Court.

In the movie, Bronx Community College's domed, columned Gould Memorial Library auditorium stands in for MIT's Great Dome, and this building also was used for hospital and treatment room scenes. The Wheeler Lab building was actually an abandoned wing of the Garden State Cancer Center, a research facility in Belleville, N.J.

According to Nash's autobiography for the Nobel committee, he joined MIT at age 23 because "it seemed desirable more for personal and social reasons than academic ones to accept the higher-paying instructorship at MIT" and leave the one he had held for a year after obtaining his doctorate at Princeton.

"Our office was on the third floor of Building 2 just left of the staircase you would take if you entered MIT from the library side," Singer recalled. (The office in Room 2-363, has since been broken up into three offices.) "We taught two courses one term and one course the other term. We also taught a course in the summer.

"A Beautiful Mind" scriptwriters took liberties with the facts in Nasar's biography. The book describes at length the common room where Nash spent a lot of time with colleagues and students, but the movie doesn't touch on this.

"The movie did not portray MIT at all," Singer said. "The book focused on Nash in the common room at MIT. I spent little time there. The main activities in the math department were the seminars on the many developing topics in math. I enjoyed and learned a lot in the seminars." Singer was interviewed and quoted in Nasar's biography.

Nasar writes that at MIT, Nash's "boyish looks and adolescent behavior won him nicknames like L'il Abner and the Kid Professor." He also was dubbed "Gnash" for making belittling remarks about other mathematicians. He alienated students by putting classic unsolved mathematics problems on tests, and was known for eccentricities such as mimicking his hero Nobert Wiener's nearsighted habit of walking while holding onto walls.

"The movie and book focused on the heavy competition between young mathematicians. They completely ignored the great cooperation among research mathematicians, which was my main experience at MIT," Singer said.


It was while Nash was on sabbatical leave from MIT in 1956 that he married Larde, a 1955 physics graduate from El Salvador who was in one of his classes. Soon afterwards, he began suffering from delusions that he was the Prince of Peace and the Emperor of Antartica, Nasar related in "The Essential John Nash," published this year by Princeton University Press.

"The mental disturbances originated in the early months of 1959 at a time when Alicia happened to be pregnant," Nash wrote. In a paper he delivered at the World Congress of Psychiatry in 1999 describing his illness, he said, "I started to see crypto-communists everywhere ... I started to think I was a man of great religious importance, and to hear voices all the time. I began to hear something like telephone calls in my head, from people opposed to my ideas ... The delirium was like a dream from which I never seemed to awake."

In May 1959, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and resigned from MIT.

"And it did happen that when I had been long enough hospitalized, I would finally renounce my delusional hypotheses and revert to thinking of myself as a human of more conventional circumstances and return to mathematical research. In these instances of, as it were, enforced rationality, I did succeed in doing some respectable mathematical research," Nash wrote.

When the Nobel committee decided in 1994 to award Nash (jointly with John C. Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten) a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on game theory, many of those who had built on this early work assumed he was dead. Nasar credited longtime support from his wife (whom he divorced in 1963 and later remarried) and colleagues, as well as Nash's determination to overcome his disease through sheer force of will, with his professional and personal resurrection.

"Gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation," Nash wrote. "However, this is not entirely a matter of joy, as if someone returned from physical disability to good physical health. One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person's concept of his relation to the cosmos."

Nash is now at Princeton, where he spent much of his time as he struggled with his disease. At one point he was known as the Phantom because he mutely wandered the halls and scrawled mysterious messages on blackboards.

"My current research interests include logic, game theory, and cosmology and gravitation," Nash writes on his Princeton web page. In 1994, he said that while it would be "improbable" that a mathematician of his age would be able to add much to his previous achievements, he still hoped to "achieve something of value through my current studies or with any new ideas that come in the future."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 13, 2002.

Related Topics

More MIT News