The Man from the Future

The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

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Fun fact: John von Neumann didn't show up at all in that movie, Oppenheimer. But he was there at Los Alamos, and his mathematical wizardry played a key part in designing the atomic bombs. He was particularly expert in analyzing the propagation of shock waves generated by explosions, and that was critical (heh) in producing a chain reaction in the fissile material. I guess that story wasn't cinematic enough.

This book is an interesting look at von Neumann's life and times. He grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Hungary, and his math wizardry was apparent from a young age. Wisely escaping Europe in the 1930s, he found himself at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, and was a natural choice for recruitment to Los Alamos. His career was a mixture of blue-sky theory and down-to-earth practical applications. (The latter being especially useful to the military.)

The book is slightly unusual in that it goes into great detail on the fields he (mostly) pioneered. Disconcertingly, this means von Neumann goes offstage for much of the book, as the author, Ananyo Bhattacharya, discusses how those fields developed under his intellectual successors. (Disconcerting, but also interesting.) For example, his pioneering work on cellular automata was glommed onto by (most notably) John Conway and Steven Wolfram, and their work is extensively examined.

Those fields are dizzying in their variety and depth: computer design, set theory, game theory, theoretical economics, algorithms, and many more. Game theory, especially, became important in the 1950s when it became apparent that the USSR was also acquiring nukes. The work of the RAND corporation in discussing our war-fighting (and, hopefully, holocaust-avoiding) strategy is explained in depth. (Just one more fun fact: von Neumann briefly advocated nuking the USSR before they could nuke us.)

Another disconcerting underlying theme: while von Neumann seemed to be relatively psychologically normal, that might have only been in comparison with his co-workers and peers. Wolfram is famously cranky; Kurt Gödel met an untimely and unpleasant end, as did George R. Price and Alan Turing.

Last Modified 2024-01-09 6:46 PM EDT