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Comments about John Forbes Nash Jr.

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Howard Swint says...

On 03/13/13
at 02:45 PM

Dr. John F. Nash Jr. is the greatest West Virginian to have ever lived. While many have achieved the top honor of their particular field or vocation, none have come close to matching the depth and breadth of pure intellectual advancement that Nash has, nor have any approached the astonishing level of defining contribution across multiple disciplines.

Many will recognize this former Bluefield native as the Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences who was popularized in the biography and movie A Beautiful Mind. But because Nash’s early academic contributions were so astonishingly advanced it has taken scholars decades to fully understand his body of work that today is held to have conceptually revolutionized the field of economics.

What’s more, Nash is also regarded by many to be the greatest mathematician of the second half of the 20th century, a towering achievement in and of itself. Taken together, Nash is as intellectually distinguished as perhaps anyone living in the United States, if not the world. But as further testimony to his genius, the insight from his pioneering work has fostered breakthrough applications well beyond the hard sciences. Biographer Sylvia Nasar in 1994 recounts, “… his name began to surface everywhere – in economics textbooks, articles on evolutionary biology, political science treatises, mathematics journals.”

Today Nash’s very name has become foundational in astonishingly disparate disciplines and in a manner that at once illuminates the human condition as it transcends it, especially the seminal contributions associated with the Nash Equilibrium. Nash wrote about how parties in non-cooperating games, unable to enter into binding agreements to work together, could nevertheless resolve conflict and achieve gain at a point of equilibrium – with its essence reduced to mathematical formula.

At once profoundly complex yet elegantly simple, it launched a conceptual revolution that would, over time, come to fill a vast vacuum of logical thinking in human behavior that few knew even existed. His academic scholarship saw him tower over his peers, but the real world applications of his intellectual contributions, decades after having been published, are just as extraordinary. Game theory is found predominately in international trade, monetary policy, environmental regulation, foreign policy and diplomatic negotiations, military strategy, information technology, and corporate business. The very mechanisms associated with international auctions, whether oil and natural gas leases or Treasury bills, has been reordered by game theory.

The auction of FCC-regulated broadcast frequency, reported to have garnered over $10 billion, had been hailed by Princeton Dean Michael Rothschild as a “triumph of pure thought.” To be sure, this contemporary of Einstein and Oppenheimer was not perfect, and his efforts to revise their field of quantum theory proved, in the words of Nash, to be “possibly overreaching and psychologically destabilizing.” But in the philosophy of Robert Browning, our reach should exceed our grasp, and by the singular measure of Nash’s world-class contributions and accomplishments he should be recognized as the greatest West Virginian to have ever lived.

On the 10-year anniversary of his receiving the Nobel Prize, this product of the West Virginia public school system and devoted family should be honored at the statehouse where the outstretched finger of Senator Robert C. Byrd can point to a body of work that scaled the summit of contemporary knowledge.

Swint is a commercial property broker and political activist. Views expressed in comments to e-WV articles are those of the commenter.

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