A Biography of John von Neumann: Teasing Out the Threads of Genius

From a New York Times book review by Jennifer Szalai headlined “Teasing Out the Threads of Genius”:

The mathematician John von Neumann was an undeniable genius whose many accomplishments included an essential role in the development of quantum mechanics, computing and the atom bomb. As the co-author of one of the first textbooks on game theory, he took a coolly analytical approach to a range of situations that included bluffing in poker and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Still, von Neumann didn’t let his deep understanding of physics and rational utility get in the way of something else that was clearly very important to him: a love of driving, along with what seemed to be a cheerful commitment to being terrible at it.

After leaving Europe in 1933 for a life of the mind at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., von Neumann failed the driving test so many times that he had to bribe the examiner to get his license. Every year he found an excuse to buy a new car, preferably an enormous Cadillac. “I was proceeding down the road,” he would start to say to his incredulous friends when recalling another one of his accidents. “The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles an hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path. Boom!”

This is one of several vivid anecdotes recounted in Ananyo Bhattacharya’s “The Man From the Future,” which bills itself as a biography of von Neumann but is more devoted to exploring the ideas and technological inquiries he inspired.

“The mathematical contributions von Neumann made in the mid-20th century now appear more eerily prescient with every passing year,” Bhattacharya writes, alluding to this book’s excellent title. “His thinking is so pertinent to the challenges we face today that it is tempting to wonder if he was a time traveler, quietly seeding ideas that he knew would be needed to shape the Earth’s future.”

When von Neumann was alive, before the full import of his influence could be gauged, his brilliance marked him not as a time traveler but as an alien — one of the so-called Martians, the nickname for the Hungarian-Jewish emigrés, including Edward Teller, who worked on the secret atom bomb project at Los Alamos. Naturally, the intellectually omnivorous von Neumann came up with his own theories about the “Hungarian phenomenon” (the shorthand term for the scientific accomplishments of von Neumann and his countrymen), deciding that it had something to do with the Austro-Hungarian mixture of liberalism and feudalism that allowed Jews some avenues for success while keeping them away from the true levers of power. This provoked “a feeling of extreme insecurity,” von Neumann said, making him and his fellow Martians believe that they needed “to produce the unusual or face extinction.”

This was a dark and introspective assessment from someone who may have anticipated World War II in Europe but was also remembered as “a cheerful man, an optimist who loved money and believed firmly in human progress,” in the words of one of his lifelong friends. Bhattacharya, a science journalist who also holds a Ph.D. in physics, doesn’t probe too deeply into these apparent contradictions. We get a brisk tour through the first three decades of von Neumann’s life — born in Budapest in 1903, he was a mathematical prodigy who lived a mostly privileged existence — before we land in Princeton, where his real-world influence quickly took off.

Von Neumann came of age when mathematics wasn’t considered a “practical” profession. He studied chemistry too, as a sop to his father, an investment banker — banking being another field that, later on, would become in thrall to mathematics. After arriving in the United States, von Neumann spent nearly a quarter of a century at the Institute for Advanced Study, where his office neighbors included Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. From New Jersey von Neumann would travel the country, teaching and consulting, most consequentially at Los Alamos. Bhattacharya quotes from a report that von Neumann put together for the U.S. Navy, detailing how the “angle of incidence” could make a bomb’s detonation more destructive….

Bhattacharya shows how this unabashedly forthright treatment of “morally fraught matters” earned von Neumann a reputation for hawkishness, as did his support for the logic of “preventive war.” He advocated taking out the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal with a surprise attack (“If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?”) — a position that he later walked back. Yet Bhattacharya also says that von Neumann, as someone who was “Central European to the core,” believed that people would work together for their mutual benefit, which was embedded in his approach to game theory. So who was he? The hopeful Central European or the hard-nosed cold warrior?

He was, as Bhattacharya puts it, “a complex character,” and there are tantalizing glimmers of such human strangeness and complexity in this book. But “The Man From the Future” sometimes seems so focused on explicating that future — narrating the fates of von Neumann’s ideas long past his death, from cancer, in 1957 — that the man himself recedes from view.

The skill with which Bhattacharya teases apart dense scientific concepts left me feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, what we do see of von Neumann hints at such a fascinating personality that I wanted to know more; on the other, maybe there’s something to be said for fixating so intently on the cerebral output of someone whose daughter once observed, “My father’s first love in life was thinking.”

Besides, von Neumann, ever the restless pollinator, may have approved of his biographer’s approach: “Busy with so many other things, he would whizz in, lecture for an hour or two on the links between information and entropy or circuits for logical reasoning, then whizz off again — leaving the bewildered attendees to discuss the implications of whatever he had said for the rest of the afternoon.”

Jennifer Szalai is a book critic for The New York Times. She was previously a columnist and editor for the Book Review. Her work has also appeared in Slate, New York, The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, where she was a senior editor until 2010.

Also see the Wall Street Journal review by Stephen Budinsky headlined “‘The Man From the Future’ Review: The Genius of John von Neumann.” The opening grafs:

Indiscriminately applied these days to everything from Elon Musk to tips for cooking chicken in your dishwasher, the word “genius” has arguably lost whatever meaning it might have had. But if anyone ever merited the label, it was surely the Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann. His unworldly insights into everything his wide-ranging intellect touched led colleagues to joke that he must be a superintelligent visitor from another planet, who had adopted the cover story of being Hungarian to explain away his heavily accented English.

During his 53 years on Planet Earth—he died of metastatic prostate cancer in 1957—von Neumann, beginning at age 19, pioneered new areas of pure mathematics that today bear his name; revolutionized the foundations of quantum mechanics in the 1920s (among other things by demonstrating the deep mathematical equivalence of Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Schrödinger’s wave mechanics that had mystified everyone else); solved the crucial problem of employing high explosives to precisely and symmetrically compress a sphere of plutonium in the first atomic bomb; co-authored the bestselling book that launched the field of game theory; developed key concepts of nuclear deterrence and (before the first stored-program digital computer even existed) conceived the fundamental architecture used in every computer since.

“The Man From the Future” is an apt title for Ananyo Bhattacharya’s brisk exploration of the products of this astonishingly fruitful mind, and where his glittering array of contributions to such diverse fields have taken us since. “Look around you,” Mr. Bhattacharya writes with only slight hyperbole, “and you will see Johnny’s fingerprints everywhere.”…

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