I was taught to feel, perhaps too much
The self-sufficing power of solitude.
AMONG JOHN NASH'S EARLIEST MEMORIES is one in which, as a child of about two or three, he is listening to his maternal grandmother play the piano in the front parlor of the old Tazewell Street house, high on a breezy hill overlooking the city of Bluefield, West Virginia.
It was in this parlor that his parents were married on September 6, 1924, a Saturday, at eight in the morning to the chords of a Protestant hymn, amid basketfuls of blue hydrangeas, goldenrod, black-eyed susans, and white and gold marguerites. The thirty-two-year-old groom was tall and gravely handsome. The bride, four years his junior, was a willowy, dark-eyed beauty. Her narrow, brown cut-velvet dress emphasized her slender waist and long, graceful back. She had sewn it herself, perhaps having chosen its deep shade out of deference to her father's recent death. She carried a bouquet of the same old-fashioned flowers that filled the room, and she wore more of these blooms woven through her thick chestnut hair. The effect was brilliant rather than subdued. The vibrant browns and golds, which would have made a woman with a lighter, more typically southern complexion look wan, embellished her rich coloring and lent her a striking and sophisticated air.
The ceremony, conducted by ministers from Christ Episcopal Church and Bland Street Methodist Church, was simple and brief, witnessed by fewer than a dozen family members and old friends. By eleven o'clock, the newlyweds were standing at the ornate, wrought-iron gate in front of the rambling, white 1890s house waving their goodbyes. Then, according to an account that appeared some weeks later in the Appalachian Power Company's company newsletter, they embarked in the groom's shiny new Dodge for an "extensive tour" through several northern states.
The romantic style of the wedding, and the venturesome honeymoon, hinted at certain qualities in the couple, no longer in the first bloom of youth, that set them somewhat apart from the rest of society in this small American town.
John Forbes Nash, Sr., was "proper, painstaking, and very serious, a very conservative man in every respect," according to his daughter Martha Nash Legg. What saved him from dullness was a sharp, inquiring mind. A Texas native, he came from the rural gentry, teachers and farmers, pious, frugal Puritans and Scottish Baptists who migrated west from New England and the Deep South. He was born in 1892 on his maternal grandparents' plantation on the banks of the Red River in northern Texas, the youngest of three children of Martha Smith and Alexander Quincy Nash. The first few years of his life were spent in Sherman, Texas, where his paternal grandparents, both teachers, had founded the Sherman Institute (later the Mary Nash College for Women), a modest but progressive establishment, where the daughters of Texas's middle class learned deportment, the value of regular physical exercise, and a bit of poetry and botany. His mother had been a student and then a teacher at the college before she married the son of its founders. After his grandparents died, John Sr.'s parents operated the college until a smallpox epidemic forced them to close its doors for good.
His childhood, spent within the precincts of Baptist institutions of higher learning, was unhappy. The unhappiness stemmed largely from his parents' marriage. Martha Nash's obituary refers to "many heavy burdens, responsibilities and disappointments, that made a severe demand on her nervous system and physical force." Her chief burden was Alexander, a strange and unstable individual, a ne'er-do-well, a drinker and a philanderer who either abandoned his wife and three children soon after the college's demise or, more likely, was thrown out. When precisely Alexander left the family for good or what happened to him after he departed is unclear, but he was in the picture long enough to earn his children's undying enmity and to instill in his youngest son a deep and ever-present hunger for respectability. "He was very concerned with appearances," his daughter Martha later said of her father; "he wanted everything to be very proper."
John Sr.'s mother was a highly intelligent, resourceful woman. After she and her husband separated, Martha Nash supported herself and her two young sons and daughter on her own, working for many years as an administrator at Baylor College, another Baptist institution for girls, in Belton, in central Texas. Obituaries refer to her "fine executive ability" and "remarkable managerial skill." According to the Baptist Standard, "She was an unusually capable woman.... She had the capacity of managing large enterprises ... a true daughter of the true Southern gentry." Devout and diligent, Martha was also described as an "efficient and devoted" mother, but her constant struggle against poverty, bad health, and low spirits, along with the shame of growing up in a fatherless household, left its scars on John Sr. and contributed to the emotional reserve he later displayed toward his own children.
Surrounded by unhappiness at home, John Sr. early on found solace and certainty in the realm of science and technology. He studied electrical engineering at Texas Agricultural & Mechanical, graduating around 1912. He enlisted in the army shortly after the United States entered World War I and spent most of his wartime duty as a lieutenant in the 144th Infantry Supply Division in France. When he returned to Texas, he did not go back to his previous job at General Electric, but instead tried his hand at teaching engineering students at the University of Texas. Given his background and interests, he may well have hoped to pursue an academic career. If so, however, those hopes came to nothing. At the end of the academic year, he agreed to take a position in Bluefield with the Appalachian Power Company (now American Electric Power), the utility that would employ him for the next thirty-eight years. By June, he was living in rented rooms in Bluefield.
Photographs of Margaret Virginia Martin--known as Virginia--at the time of her engagement to John Sr. show a smiling, animated woman, stylish and whippet-thin. One account called her "one of the most charming and cultured young ladies of the community." Outgoing and energetic, Virginia was a freer, less rigid spirit than her quiet, reserved husband and a far more active presence in her son's life. Her vitality and forcefulness were such that, years later, her son John, by then in his thirties and seriously ill, would dismiss a report from home that she had been hospitalized for a "nervous breakdown" as simply unbelievable. He would greet the news of her death in 1969 with similar incredulity.
Like her husband, Virginia grew up in a family that valued church and higher education. But there the similarity ended. She was one of four surviving daughters of a popular physician, James Everett Martin, and his wife, Eva, who had moved to Bluefield from North Carolina during the early 1890s. The Martins were a well-to-do, prominent local family. Over time, they acquired a good deal of property in the town, and Dr. Martin eventually gave up his medical practice to manage his real-estate investments and to devote himself to civic affairs. Some accounts refer to him as a onetime postmaster, others as the town's mayor. The Martins' affluence did not protect them from terrible blows--their first child, a boy, died in infancy; Virginia, the second, was left entirely deaf in one ear at age twelve after a bout of scarlet fever; a younger brother was killed in a train wreck; and one of her sisters died in a typhoid epidemic--but on the whole Virginia grew up in a happier atmosphere than her husband. The Martins were also well-educated, and they saw to it that all of their daughters received university educations. Eva Martin was herself unusual in having graduated from a women's college in Tennessee. Virginia studied English, French, German, and Latin first at Martha Washington College and later at West Virginia University, graduating at age sixteen. By the time she met her husband-to-be, she had been teaching for more than ten years. She was a born teacher, a talent that she would later lavish on her gifted son. Like her husband, she had seen something beyond the small towns of her home state. Before her marriage, she and another Bluefield teacher, Elizabeth Shelton, spent several summers traveling and attending courses at various universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University in New York, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
When the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, the couple lived at the Tazewell Street house with Virginia's mother and sisters. John Sr. went back to his job at the Appalachian, which in those years consisted largely of driving all over the state inspecting remote power lines. Virginia did not return to teaching. Like most school districts around the country during the 1920s, the Mercer County school system had a marriage bar. Female teachers lost their jobs as soon as they married. But, quite apart from her forced resignation, her new husband had a strong feeling that he ought to provide for his wife and protect her from what he regarded as the shame of having to work, another legacy of his own upbringing.
Bluefield, named for the fields of "azure chicory" in surrounding valleys that grows along every street and alleyway even today, owes its existence to the rolling hills full of coal--"the wildest, most rugged and romantic country to be found in the mountains of Virginia or West Virginia"--that surround the remote little city. Norfolk & Western, in a spirit of "mean force and ignorance," built a line in the 1890s that stretched from Roanoke to Bluefield, which lies in the Appalachians on the easternmost edge of the great Pocahontas coal seam. For a long time, Bluefield was a rough and ready frontier outpost where Jewish merchants, African-American construction workers, and Tazewell County farmers struggled to make a living and where millionaire coal operators, most of whom lived ten miles away in Bramwell, baffled Italian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrant laborers, and John L. Lewis and the UMW sat down with the coal operators to negotiate contracts, negotiations that often led to the bloody strikes and lockouts documented in John Sayles's film Matewan.
By the 1920s, when the Nashes married, however, Bluefield's character was already changing. Directly on the line between Chicago and Norfolk, the town was becoming an important rail hub and had attracted a prosperous white-collar class of middle managers, lawyers, small businessmen, ministers, and teachers. A real downtown of granite office buildings and stores had sprung up. Handsome churches had also gone up all over town. Snug frame houses with pretty little gardens edged by Rose of Sharon dotted the hills. The town had acquired a daily newspaper, a hospital, and a home for the elderly. Educational institutions, from private kindergartens and dancing schools to two small colleges, one black, one white, were thriving. The radio, telegraph, and telephone, as well as the railroads and, increasingly, the automobile, eased the sense of isolation.
Bluefield was not "a community of scholars," as John Nash later said with more than a hint of irony. Its bustling commercialism, Protestant respectability, and small-town snobbery couldn't have been further removed from the atmosphere of the intellectual hothouses of Budapest and Cambridge which produced John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener. Yet while John Nash was growing up, the town had a sizable group of men with scientific interests and engineering talent, men like John Sr. who were attracted by the railroad, the utility, and the mining companies. Some of those who came to work for the companies wound up as science teachers in the high school or one of the two Baptist colleges. In his autobiographical essay, Nash described "having to learn from the world's knowledge rather than the knowledge of the immediate community" as "a challenge." But, in fact, Bluefield offered a good deal of stimulation--admittedly, of a down-to-earth variety--for an inquiring mind; John Nash's subsequent career as a multifaceted mathematician, not to mention a certain pragmatism of character, would seem to owe something to his Bluefield years.
More than anything, the newly married Nashes were strivers. Solid members of America's new, upwardly mobile professional middle class, they formed a tight alliance and devoted themselves to achieving financial security and a respectable place for themselves in the town's social pyramid. They became Episcopalians, like many of Bluefield's more prosperous citizens, rather than continuing in the fundamentalist churches of their youth. Unlike most of Virginia's family, they also became staunch Republicans, though (so as to be able to vote for a Democratic cousin in the primaries) not registered party members. They socialized a good deal. They joined Bluefield's new country club, which was displacing the Protestant churches as the center of Bluefield's social life. Virginia belonged to various women's book, bridge, and gardening clubs. John Sr. was a member of the Elks and a number of engineering societies. Later on, the only middle-class practice that they deliberately avoided was sending their son to prep school. Virginia, as her daughter explained, was "a public-school thinker."
John Sr.'s job with the Appalachian remained secure right through the Depression of the 1930s. The young family fared considerably better in this period than many of their neighbors and fellow churchgoers, especially the small businessmen. John Sr.'s paycheck, while hardly munificent, was steady, and frugality did the rest. All decisions involving the expenditure of money, no matter how modest, were carefully considered; very often the decision was to avoid, put off, or reduce. There were no mortgages to be had in those days, no pensions either, even for a rising young middle manager in one of the nation's largest utilities. Virginia Nash used to accuse her husband, when they'd had an argument--which they rarely did within earshot of the children--of being quite likely, in the event that she died before him, to marry a younger woman and let her squander all the money she, Virginia, had scraped so hard to save. (Their savings, it turned out, were considerable, however. Even though John Sr. died some thirteen years before Virginia, and even with the high cost of hospitalizations for John Jr., Virginia barely dipped into her capital and was able to pass along a trust fund to her children.)
Though they began life as parents in a rental house owned by Eva Martin, the Nashes were soon able to move to their own modest but comfortable three-bedroom home in one of the best parts of town, Country Club Hill. Built partly of cinder blocks that John Sr. was able to buy for a song from a nearby Appalachian coal-processing plant, the house bore little resemblance to the imposing homes of the coal families scattered around the hill. But it was within a few hundred yards of the crest where the club was located, was built to order by a local architect, and contained all the comforts and conveniences that a small-town, middle-class family at that time could aspire to: a living room where Virginia's bridge club could be entertained in style, with a fireplace, built-in bookshelves, and graceful wooden trim at the tops of all the doorways, a neat little kitchen with a breakfast nook, a dining room where Sunday dinners of chicken and waffles were served, a real basement that might one day be fitted out with a maid's room, should live-in help be one day possible, and a separate bedroom for each of the two children.
However much they were forced to economize, the Nashes were able to keep up appearances. Virginia had nice clothes, most of which she sewed herself, and allowed herself the weekly luxury of going to a beauty parlor. By the time they moved to their own house, she had a cleaning woman who came once a week. Virginia always had a car to drive, typically a Dodge, which was hardly the norm even among middle-class families at the time. John Sr., of course, had a company car, usually a Buick. The Nashes were a loyal couple, like-minded.
John Forbes Nash, Jr., was born almost exactly four years after his parents' marriage, on June 13, 1928. He first saw the light of day not at home, but in the Bluefield Sanitarium, a small hospital on Main Street that has long since been converted to other uses. Other than that single fact, again suggestive of the Nashes' comfortable circumstances, nothing is now known of his coming into the world. Did Virginia catch influenza during her winter pregnancy? Were there any other complications? Were forceps needed during the delivery? While viral exposure in utero or a subtle birth injury might have played a role in his later mental illness, there is no available record or memory to suggest any such trauma. The big, blond baby boy was, as far as anyone still living remembers, apparently healthy, and was soon baptized in the Episcopal Church directly opposite the Martin house on Tazewell Street and given his father's full name. Everyone, however, called him Johnny.
He was a singular little boy, solitary and introverted. The once-dominant view of the origins of the schizoid temperament was that abuse, neglect, or abandonment caused the child to give up the possibility of gratification from human relationships at a very early age. Johnny Nash certainly did not fit this now-discredited paradigm. His parents, especially his mother, were actively loving. In general, one can imagine, on evidence from biographies of many brilliant men who were peculiar and isolated as children, that an inward-looking child might react to intrusive adults by withdrawing further into his own private world or that efforts to make him conform might be met by firm resolve to do things his own way--or perhaps that unsympathetic taunting peers might have a similar effect. But the facts of Nash's childhood, in many ways so typical of the educated classes in small American towns of that era, suggest that his temperament may well have been one that he was born with.
As the vivid memory of his grandmother's piano-playing suggests, Johnny Nash's infancy was spent a good deal in the company not only of his adoring mother, but also of his grandmother, aunts, and young cousins. The Highland Street house to which the Nashes had moved shortly after his birth was within easy walking distance of Tazewell Street and Virginia continued to spend a great deal of time there, even after the birth of Johnny's younger sister Martha in 1930. But by the time Johnny was seven or eight, his aunts had come to consider him bookish and slightly odd. While Martha and her cousins rode stick horses, cut paper dolls out of old pattern books, and played house and hide-and-seek in the "almost scary but nice" attic, Johnny could always be found in the parlor with his nose buried in a book or magazine. At home, despite his mother's urgings, he ignored the neighborhood children, preferring to stay indoors alone. His sister spent most of her free time at the pool or playing football and kick ball or taking part in crabapple baffles with long, flimsy sticks. But Johnny played by himself with toy airplanes and Matchbox cars.
Although he was no prodigy, Johnny was a bright and curious child. His mother, with whom he was always closest, responded by making his education a principal focus of her considerable energy. "Mother was a natural teacher," Martha observes. "She liked to read, she liked to teach. She wasn't just a housewife." Virginia, who became actively involved in the PTA, taught Johnny to read by age four, sent him to a private kindergarten, saw to it that he skipped a grade early in elementary school, tutored him at home and, later on, in high school, had him enroll at Bluefield College to take courses in English, science, and math. John Sr.'s hand in his son's education was less visible. More distant than Virginia, he nonetheless shared his interests with his children--taking Johnny and Martha on Sunday drives to inspect power lines, for example--and, more important, supplied answers to his son's incessant questions about electricity, geology, weather, astronomy, and other technological subjects and the natural world. A neighbor remembers that John Sr. always spoke to his children as if they were adults: "He never gave Johnny a coloring book. He gave him science books."
At school, Johnny's immaturity and social awkwardness were initially more apparent than any special intellectual gifts. His teachers labeled him an underachiever. He daydreamed or talked incessantly and had trouble following directions, a source of some conflict between him and his mother. His fourth-grade report card, in which music and mathematics were his lowest marks, contained a note to the effect that Johnny needed "improvement in effort, study habits and respect for the rules." He gripped his pencil like a stick, his handwriting was atrocious, and he was somewhat inclined to use his left hand. John Sr. insisted he write only with his right hand. Virginia eventually made him enroll in a penmanship course at a local secretarial college, where he learned a certain style of printing and also how to type. A newspaper clipping from Virginia's scrapbook shows him, age nine or ten, sitting in a classroom with rows and rows of teenage girls, his eyes rolled up in his head, looking stupefyingly bored. Complaints about his writing, his talking out of turn or even "monopolizing the class discussion," and his sloppiness dogged him right through the end of high school."
His best friends were books, and he was always happiest learning on his own. Nash alludes to his preference obliquely in his autobiographical essay:
My parents provided an encyclopedia, Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia, that
I learned a lot from by reading it as a child. And also there were
other books available from either our house or the house of the
grandparents that were of educational value.
And the best time of day was after dinner every evening when John Sr. would sit at his desk in the small family room off the living room, the size of a sleeping porch, and John Jr. could sprawl in front of the radio, listening to classical music or news reports, or reading either the encyclopedia or the family's stacks of well-worn Life and Time magazines, and ask his father questions.
His great passion was experimenting. By the time he was twelve or so, he had turned his room into a laboratory. He tinkered with radios, fooled around with electrical gadgets, and did chemistry experiments. A neighbor recalls Johnny rigging the Nash telephone to ring with the receiver off.
Though he had no close companions, he enjoyed performing in front of other children. At one point, he would hold on to a big magnet that was wired with electricity to show how much current he could endure without flinching. Another time, he'd read about an old Indian method for making oneself immune to poison ivy. He wrapped poison ivy leaves in some other leaves and swallowed them whole in front of a couple of other boys.
One afternoon, he went to a carnival that had come to Bluefield. The crowd of children he was with clustered around a sideshow. There was a man sitting in an electric chair holding swords in each of his hands. Sparks flashed and danced between the two tips. He challenged anyone in the crowd to do the same. Johnny Nash, then about twelve, stepped forward and grabbed the swords and repeated the man's trick. "There's nothing to it," he said as he rejoined the others. How did you do that? asked one of the children. "Static electricity," answered Nash before launching into a more detailed explanation.
Johnny's lack of interest in childish pursuits and lack of friends were major sources of worry for his parents. An ongoing effort to make him more "well rounded" became a family obsession. Whether his apparent resolve to march to his own drummer was a question of his temperament or of his parents' concerted efforts to change his nature, the result was his withdrawal into his own private world. Martha, with whom Johnny constantly bickered, recalls:
Johnny was always different. [My parents] knew he was different. And they
knew he was bright. He always wanted to do things his way. Mother insisted I
do things for him, that I include him in my friendships. She wanted me
to get him dates. She was right. But I wasn't too keen on showing off
my somewhat odd brother.
Virginia pushed Johnny as hard socially as she did academically. At first, it was Boy Scout camp and Sunday Bible classes; later on, lessons at the Floyd Ward dancing school and membership in the John Alden Society, a youth organization devoted to improving the manners of its members. By high school, the outgoing Martha was always being enlisted to include her older brother when she socialized with friends. And in the summer holidays, the Nashes insisted that Johnny get jobs, including one at the Bluefield Gazette. In order to get him to the paper, "they got up at the wee hours of the night," Martha said. "They thought it was very important in helping make him well rounded. With a brain like John's, it seemed even more important. My mother and father didn't want him to be inside all the time with his hobbies and inventions."
Johnny did not openly rebel--he dutifully trotted off to camp, dancing school, Bible classes, and, later on, blind dates arranged by his sister at Virginia's urging--but he did these things mainly to please his parents, especially his mother, and acquired neither friends nor social graces as a result. He continued to treat sports, going to church, the dances at the country club, visits with his cousins--all the things that so many of his peers found fascinating and enjoyable--as tedious distractions from his books and experiments. Martha describes one occasion on which Virginia insisted he accompany the family to an Appalachian Power Company dinner. Johnny went, but spent the evening riding up and down in the elevator, which mesmerized him, until it broke--much to his parents' embarrassment. And on his summer jobs he found ways to entertain himself. One of Nash's classmates recalled that Nash, after disappearing for hours from his post at Bluefield Supply and Superior Sterling, was discovered rigging an elaborate system of mousetraps. At a dance, he pushed a stack of chairs onto the dance floor and danced with them rather than with a girl.
Virginia kept scrapbooks chronicling her children's lives and accomplishments. In one of them is a faded and yellowed essay by one Angelo Patri, clipped from a newspaper, covered with her pen marks, underlinings, and circles--poignant hints of her hopes and fears:
Queer little twists and quirks go into the making of an individual. To
suppress them all and follow clock and calendar and creed until the
individual is lost in the neutral gray of the host is to be less than
true to our inheritance.... Life, that gorgeous quality of life, is
not accomplished by following another man's rules. It is true we have
the same hungers and same thirsts, but they are for different things
and in different ways and in different seasons.... Lay down your own
day, follow it to its noon, your own noon, or you will sit in an outer
hall listening to the chimes but never reaching high enough to strike
The earliest hint of Johnny's mathematical talent, ironically, was a B-minus in fourth-grade arithmetic. The teacher told Virginia that Johnny couldn't do the work, but it was obvious to his mother that he had merely found his own ways of solving problems. "He was always looking for different ways to do things," his sister commented. More experiences like this followed, especially in high school, when he often succeeded in showing, after a teacher had struggled to produce a laborious, lengthy proof, that the proof could be accomplished in two or three elegant steps.
There is no sign of a mathematical pedigree in Nash's ancestry or any indication that mathematics was much in the air at the Nash household. Virginia Nash was literary. And for all his interest in contemporary developments in science and technology, John Sr. was not well-versed in abstract mathematics. Nash does not recall ever discussing his later research with his father. Martha's recollections of dinner-table discussions were that they revolved around the meaning of words, books the children were reading, and current events.
The first bite of the mathematical apple probably occurred when Nash at around age thirteen or fourteen read E. T. Bell's extraordinary book, Men of Mathematics--an experience he alludes to in his autobiographical essay. Bell's book, which was published in 1937, would have given Nash the first glimpse of real mathematics, a heady realm of symbols and mysteries entirely unconnected to the seemingly arbitrary and dull rules of arithmetic and geometry taught in school or even to the entertaining but ultimately trivial calculations that Nash carried out in the course of chemistry and electrical experiments.
Men of Mathematics consists of lively--and, as it turns out, not entirely accurate--biographical sketches. Its flamboyant author, a professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology, declared himself disgusted with "the ludicrous untruth of the traditional portrait of the mathematician" as a "slovenly dreamer totally devoid of common sense." He assured his readers that the great mathematicians of history were an exceptionally virile and even adventuresome breed. He sought to prove his point with vivid accounts of infant precocity, monstrously insensitive educational authorities, crushing poverty, jealous rivals, love affairs, royal patronage, and many varieties of early death, including some resulting from duels. He even went so far, in defending mathematicians, as to answer the question "How many of the great mathematicians have been perverts?" None, was his answer. "Some lived celibate lives, usually on account of economic disabilities, but the majority were happily married.... The only mathematician discussed here whose life might offer something of interest to a Freudian is Pascal." The book became a bestseller as soon as it appeared.
What makes Bell's account not merely charming, but intellectually seductive, are his lively descriptions of mathematical problems that inspired his subjects when they were young, and his breezy assurance that there were still deep and beautiful problems that could be solved by amateurs, boys of fourteen, to be specific. It was Bell's essay on Fermat, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time but a perfectly conventional seventeenth-century French magistrate whose life was "quiet, laborious and uneventful," that caught Nash's eye. The main interest of Fermat, who shares the credit for inventing calculus with Newton and analytic geometry with Descartes, was number theory--"the higher arithmetic." Number theory "investigates the mutual relationships of those common whole numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... which we utter almost as soon as we learn to talk."
For Nash, proving a theorem known as Fermat's Theorem about prime numbers, those mysterious integers that have no divisor besides themselves and one, produced an epiphany of sorts. Other mathematical geniuses, Einstein and Bertrand Russell among them, recount similarly revelatory experiences in early adolescence. Einstein recalled the "wonder" of his first encounter with Euclid at age twelve:
Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of three altitudes
of a triangle at one point which,--though by no means evident--could
nevertheless be proved with such certainty that any doubt appeared to
be out of the question. This lucidity and certainty made an
indescribable impression on me.
Nash does not describe his feelings when he succeeded in devising a proof for Fermat's assertion that if n is any whole number and p any prime, then n multiplied by itself p times minus n is divisible by p. But he notes the fact in his autobiographical essay, and his emphasis on this concrete result of his initial encounter with Fermat suggests that the thrill of discovering and exercising his own intellectual powers--as much as any sense of wonder inspired by hitherto unsuspected patterns and meanings--was what made this moment such a memorable one. That thrill has been decisive for many a future mathematician. Bell describes how success in solving a problem posed by Fermat led Carl Friedrich Gauss, the renowned German mathematician, to choose between two careers for which he was similarly talented. "It was this discovery ... which induced the young man to choose mathematics instead of philology as his life work."
However heady it may have been to prove a theorem of Fermat's, the experience was hardly enough to plant the notion in Nash's mind that he might himself become a mathematician. Although as a high-school student Nash took mathematics at Bluefield College, as late his senior year, when he already had gone much further into number theory, he still had firmly in mind following in his father's footsteps and becoming an electrical engineer. It was only after he had entered Carnegie Tech, with enough math to skip most entry-level courses, that his professors would convince him mathematics, for a chosen few, was a realistic choice as a profession.
The Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, came halfway through Johnny's first year in high school. A few days later, Johnny and Mop, as he called his younger sister, got a lesson from their father in how to shoot a .22 caliber rifle. He drove them up to a ridge where the power lines cut a wide swath through the scrubby, snow-dusted pine wood. Pointing toward the town below, huddling under a sooty gray cloud, he told them, in the soft, formal way he had of addressing his children, that the Japanese wouldn't rest until they had reached their West Virginia hometown, remote and surrounded by mountains as it was, because blowing up the coal trains was the only way they could cripple the mighty American war machine.
A .22, he said, was only a squirrel gun. You couldn't even kill a deer or a bear with one. But it was easier than a heavier gun for women and children to handle. They had no choice, really. The Japanese wouldn't be satisfied with destroying trains. They'd raze the city, round up all the men, murder all the civilians, even schoolchildren like them. If you could shoot this thing, you might be able to stop someone who was coming after you long enough to run away and hide someplace until the army rescued you. Years later, when Johnny Nash saw secret signs of invaders everywhere and believed that he, and only he, could keep the universe safe, he would be sick with anxiety, shaking and sweating and sleepless for hours and days at a time. But on that bright December afternoon, he was excited and happy as he fingered the rifle.
The war came thundering through Bluefield, West Virginia, in the roaring, rattling shapes of freight car after car heaped high with coal from the great Pocahontas coalfield in the mountains to the west--40 percent of all the coal fueling the war machine--and troop trains crowded with sailors and soldiers, round-faced farm boys from Iowa and Indiana and edgy factory hands from Pittsburgh and Chicago. The war shook and rattled the city out of its Depression slumber, filling its warehouses and streets, making overnight fortunes for scrap speculators and wheeler-dealers of all kinds. Workers were suddenly in short supply and there were jobs for everybody who wanted them. Bluefield teenagers hung around the train station watching it all, attended war bond rallies (Greer Garson showed up at one), and in school took part in tin can drives and bought war bonds with books of ten-cent stamps they bought in school. The war made a lot of Bluefield boys want to hurry and grow up lest the war be over before they were eligible to join. But Johnny didn't feel that way, his sister recalled. He did become obsessed with inventing secret codes consisting, as one former schoolmate recalled, of weird little animal and people hieroglyphics, sometimes adorned with biblical phrases: Though the Wealthy Be Great / Roll in splendor and State / I envy them not, I / declare it.
Adolescence wasn't easy for an intellectually precocious boy with few social skills or athletic interests to help him blend in with his small-town peers. The boys and girls on Country Club Hill let him tag along when they went hiking in the woods, explored caves, and hunted bats. But they found him--his speech, his behavior, the knapsack he insisted on carrying--weird. "He was teased more than average--simply because he was so far out," Donald V. Reynolds, who lived across the street from the Nashes, said. "What he thought of as experimenting, we thought of as crazy. We called him Big Brains." Once some boys in the neighborhood tricked him into a boxing match and he took a beating. But because he was tall, strong, and physically courageous, the teasing only rarely degenerated into outright bullying. He rarely passed up a chance to prove that he was smarter, stronger, braver.
Boredom and simmering adolescent aggression led him to play pranks, occasionally ones with a nasty edge. He caricatured classmates be disliked with weird little cartoons. He later told a fellow mathematician at MIT that, as a youngster, he had sometimes "enjoyed torturing animals." He once constructed a Tinkertoy rocking chair, wired it electrically, and tried to get Martha to sit in it. He played a similar prank on a neighboring child. Nelson Walker, head of Bluefield's Chamber of Commerce, told a newspaper reporter the following story:
I was a couple of years younger than Johnny. One day I was walking by
his house on Country Club Hill and he was sitting on the front steps.
He called for me to come over and touch his hands. I walked over to
him, and when I touched his hands, I got the biggest shock I'd ever
gotten in my life. He had somehow rigged up batteries and wires behind
him, so that he wouldn't get shocked but when I touched his hands, I
got the living fire shocked out of me. After that he just smiled and I
went on my way.
Occasionally the pranks got him into hot water. One incident involving a small explosion in the high school chemistry lab landed him in the principal's office. Another time, he and some other boys were picked up by the police for a curfew violation.
When he was about fifteen, Nash and a couple of boys from across the street, Donald Reynolds and Herman Kirchner, began fooling around with homemade explosives. They gathered in Kirchner's garage, which they called their "laboratory," where they made pipe bombs and manufactured their own gunpowder. They constructed cannons out of pipe and shot stuff through them. Once they managed to shoot a candle through a thick wooden board. One day Nash showed up at the lab holding a beaker. "I've just made some nitroglycerin," he announced excitedly. Donald didn't believe him. He told him "to go down to Crystal Rock and throw it over the cliff to see what would happen." Nash did just that. "Luckily," said Reynolds, "it didn't work. He would have blown off the whole side of the mountain." The bombmaking came to a horrifying end one afternoon in January 1944. Herman Kirchner, who was alone at the time, was building yet another pipe bomb when it exploded in his lap, severing his intestinal artery. He bled to death in the ambulance that came for him. Donald Reynolds's parents packed him off to boarding school the following fall. For Nash, whose parents may or may not have known the extent of his involvement in the bombmaking, it was a sobering experience that brought home the dangers of his experiments.
He had grown up, essentially, without ever making a close friend. Just as he learned to deflect his parents' criticism of his behavior with his intellectual achievements, he learned to armor himself against rejection by adopting a hard shell of indifference and using his superior intelligence to strike back. Julia Robinson, the first woman to become president of the American Mathematical Society, said in her autobiography that she believed that many mathematicians felt themselves to be ugly ducklings as children, unlovable and out of kilter with their more conventional, conforming peers. Johnny's apparent sense of superiority, his standoffishness, and his occasional cruelty were ways of coping with uncertainty and loneliness. What he lost by his lack of genuine interaction with children his own age was a "lively sense, in reality, of his actual position in the human hierarchy" that prevents other children with more social contact from feeling either unrealistically weak or unrealistically powerful. If he could not believe he was lovable, then feeling powerful was a good substitute. As long as he could be successful, his self-esteem could remain intact.
Johnny chose the time-honored escape route from the confines of small-town life: He performed well in school. With Virginia's encouragement, he took courses at Bluefield College. He read voraciously, mostly futuristic fantasy books, popular science magazines, and real science texts. "He was just an outstanding problem solver," his high school chemistry teacher later told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. "When I put a chemistry problem up on the blackboard, all the students would get out a pencil and a piece of paper. John wouldn't move. He would stare at the formula on the board, then stand up politely and tell us the answer. He could do it all in his head. He never even took out a pencil or a piece of paper." This youthful Gedanken experimentation actually helped shape the way he approached mathematical problems later on. His peers became more respectful. At a time when the war was making heroes out of scientists, Johnny's classmates assumed he was slated to become one.
In his last year in high school, Nash became friendly--though not close friends--with a couple of fellow students, John Williams and John Louthan, both sons of Bluefield College professors. The three rode a public bus to school together and Johnny helped Williams with Latin translations. Williams recalled, "We were attracted to him. He was an interesting guy. That was sort of it. I don't think we ever went over to John's house. It was pretty much of a school thing." The three also constantly maneuvered to get out of their classes as much as possible. Before the widespread use of the SATs, college recruiters routinely came to the high school and would invite students to take their admissions tests. "We spent many mornings taking those tests," Williams said.
At the beginning of the year, at Johnny's instigation, they made a bet--no one remembers for how much--that they could make the honor roll without ever cracking a book. All three thought they were pretty smart but at the same time were contemptuous of grinds and teachers' pets. "We kind of got drug into it by Nash," Williams said. Nash, who was already taking a full load of courses at Bluefield College, never made the honor society, missing it by a few tenths of a percent. The other two did, though by a hair.
* * *
John Sr. suggested that Johnny apply to West Point, a suggestion that, once again, may have reflected the father's anxiety that his son was not growing up well-rounded as much as it did the prospect of free college tuition. But as Martha said, "Even I could see that wouldn't have worked." Whatever fantasies he may have had about becoming a scientist, when asked to describe his career aspirations in an essay, Johnny wrote that he hoped to become an engineer like his father. He and John Sr. wrote an article together describing an improved method for calculating the proper tensions for electric cables and wires--a project that entailed weeks of field measurements--and published the results jointly in an engineering journal. Johnny entered the George Westinghouse competition and won a full scholarship, one of ten that were awarded nationally. The fact that Lloyd Shapley, a son of the famous Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, also won a Westinghouse that year made the achievement all the sweeter in the eyes of the Nash family. Johnny was accepted at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Because of the war all colleges were on accelerated schedules and operated year-round so that students could graduate in three years. Johnny left Bluefield for Pittsburgh, taking a train from nearby Hinton, in mid-June, a few weeks before the VE Day parade celebrating Hitler's defeat.
Copyright © 1998 Sylvia Nasar.
All rights reserved.