On the way home from receiving the million-dollar Abel Prize from King Harald of Norway, John Nash, along with his wife Alicia, was killed in a taxicab crash on the New Jersey Turnpike. I was at the Abel ceremonies May 21-22 myself to give the Science Lecture. Louis Nirenberg and John Nash received math’s highest prize for their work in partial differential equations. The prize, Norway’s response to Sweden’s Nobel Prize in Physics, was initially proposed by Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie for the hundredth anniversary in 1902 of the birth of Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel. It was finally established on the two hundreth anniversary in 2002.
(Photos from Akershus Castle: John Nash, Williams Trustee Joey Horn, and Frank Morgan; Morgan and Alicia Nash, with King Harald in between in the background.)
In a brilliant citation, John Rognes, chair of the Abel Committee, began with Newton and differential equations. Many processes, such as the Brownian motion of small particles, the stock market, and turbulent fluid flow require the notion of a weak, nondifferentiable solution to a differential equation, such as the generalized functions or distributions of de Rham, defined by their integrals against smooth functions. Rognes said:
“At first, a weak solution only exists in a virtual sense, through its interaction with other quantities. To become useful for applications, and to be accessible through numerical calculations with a computer, it is necessary to know that the weak solution is real, and that is generalized rates of change are actual rates of change.
“The regularity results of Nirenberg and Nash provide this kind of knowledge, with mathematical certainty.”
In my Science Lecture on “Soap Bubbles and Mathematics,” I observed that it was Nash’s famous isometric embedding theorem that initially made soap bubble theory applicable to other, curvy universes.
P.S. 27 May 2015. Just received this message from the chair of the Abel Committee:
The tragic accident that took the lives of John and Alicia Nash has left us all stunned. The president of the Norwegian Academy, and I, have posted a statement at the Abel prize webpage, but in a situation like this words do not suffice. There will be a private funeral ceremony tomorrow, Thursday, only for the closest family. A memorial service will take place later. Some of us from the Academy will come to Princeton then, to honor their memory. Louis Nirenberg was one of the last to see John and Alicia Nash. He spent most of last week very close to them, and I think the news must have been especially shocking to him. At the moment I think he is receiving an overwhelming number of calls and emails, including many requests from the press. I hope that this flood halts quickly, so that he can return to more normal conversations and interactions with friends and colleagues. Yours sincerely, John Rognes