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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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John Forbes Nash Jr. was an American mathematician. His father, John Forbes Nash Sr., was a native of Texas. John Nash Sr. was born in 1892 and had an unhappy childhood from which he escaped when he went on to study electrical engineering at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical. Post military service in France during World War I, John Nash Sr. was a lecturer of electrical engineering for a year at the University of Texas following which he joined the Appalachian Power Company in Bluefield, West Virginia. John F Nash\'s mother was Margaret Virginia Martin. She had a university education at the Martha Washington College, studying languages and then at West Virginia University. Before meeting John Nash Sr., she was a school teacher for ten years and they were married on 6 September 1924.

Johnny Nash, as he was called by his family, was born on June 13, 1928 in Bluefield Sanitarium. He was a solitary and introverted little boy, but he was brought up in a loving family surrounded by close relations. After a couple of years, on November 16, 1930, Johnny had a sister when Martha was born. He seemed to show a lot of interest in books and learning when he was young but very little interest in playing with other children. He never joined Martha and her cousins when they played the usual childhood games: playing hide-and-seek in the attic, cutting patterns out of books,, playing football. However Johnny played by himself with toy airplanes and matchbox cars while the others played together.

John’s mother responded to this trait in him by encouraging Johnny\'s education with a lot of enthusiasm, both by ensuring that he got good schooling and further by teaching him herself. Also, John’s father started treating him like an adult, giving him science books when other parents were giving their children colouring books.

John\'s teachers at school did not recognise his genius, as it may be so because he gave them little reason to realise that he had extraordinary talents. They labelled him backward as they were more conscious of his lack of social skills. By the time he was about twelve years old, he was extremely bored at school and was instead showing great interest in carrying out multiple scientific experiments in his room. His parents forced him to be more socially active and he obliged; however, sports, dances, visits to relatives and other such events were a very uninteresting and tedious distraction from his experiments and books. Clearly, he learnt more at home than he did at his school.

Nash Jr.’s interest in Mathematics was first piqued when he was about 14 years old when he read E T Bell’s Men Of Mathematics. His excitement in proving results stated in this book was in contrast to the school curriculum of Mathematics which failed to capture his attention.

John Nash joined Bluefield College in 1931 where he took up courses in mathematics and sciences of which he was particularly fond of chemistry. He won a full scholarship in the George Westinghouse Competition following which he was accepted by Carnegie Institute of Technology, currently known as Carnegie-Mellon University, in June 1945. Even though his intention was of taking a degree in chemical engineering, his rapidly growing interest in mathematics made him take courses on tensor calculus and relativity. It was there that he came in contact with John Synge, Head of the Mathematics Department and the professor for the relativity course. Synge and all the other mathematics professors very quickly realised Nash’s phenomenal mathematical talents and nudged and persuaded him to become a professional mathematician.

Nash was quickly aspiring to do great things in mathematics. He took the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition twice, and even though he did well, he did not make the top five. For him, this was a failure he took rather badly. Also, his fellow students finding him a very strange person did not make life easier. He was saved from being bullied as he was physically strong, but the other students always made fun of Nash for his awkward behaviour.

John Nash received a BA and an MA in mathematics in 1948 and was accepted into the mathematics programme at Harvard, Princeton, Chicago and Michigan. As Harvard was the leading university, Nash showed an interest to go there. But Princeton made a more generous offer as they were keen on having him there. His professors, including Synge encouraged him to accept Princeton and when Solomon Lefschetz did offer him Princeton’s most prestigious fellowship, Nash decided to study there. So he entered Princeton in September 1948 and showed a great interest in pure mathematics, topology, logics, algebraic geometry and game theory. He did not attend lectures and neither read from the books; Nash decided to rather develop topics himself than learn mathematics “second-hand”. This approach of his was successful in him developing into one of the most original mathematicians in the world.

In 1949, while studying for his doctorate, Nash wrote a paper which would win him a Nobel Prize for Economics 45 years later. In this time period, he developed and established the mathematical principles of game theory. He also published his first paper, The Bargaining Problem, in April 1950 in the journal Econometrica. A year later, in 1950, Nash received his doctorate with a thesis entitled Non-Cooperative Games from Princeton. This also made his way into the journal Annals of Mathematics in September 1951. In November 1952, John Nash published another one of his papers, Real Algebraic Manifolds in Annals of Mathematics. Even though the publication of this paper established him as a leading mathematician, everyone at Princeton wasn’t ready to see him join the faculty there. This was not because of his mathematical abilities, as they were accepted and recognised as outstanding, but rather due to his aggressive personality. From 1952, he taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His teaching methods were unusual and not very popular among students and his examination methods were very unorthodox. His ongoing research on the theory of real algebraic varieties, Riemann geometry and parabolic and elliptic equations was in great depth and significant in the development of all these topics. His research at MIT was also in  partial differential equations. He was named as ‘the most promising mathematician in the world’ by the Fortune magazine in 1958. Just as things were settling for John Nash, his mental condition took a turn for the worse. After several bouts of mental illness, he resigned from MIT in 1959. Nash then began an informal association with Princeton and became a senior research mathematician in 1995.

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