‘Man from the Future’ recounts the life of a restless genius

The Visionary Life of John von Neumann
By Ananyo Bhattacharya
Illustration. 353 pages. WW Norton & Co. $30.

Mathematician John von Neumann was an undeniably genius, whose many accomplishments include an essential role in the development of quantum mechanics, computers, and the atomic bomb. Co-author of one of the first textbooks on game theory, he took an interesting analytical approach to a wide range of situations including poker and nuclear scenarios. to be destroyed. However, von Neumann didn’t let his deep understanding of physics and rational utility get in the way of something else clearly important to him: a love of driving, along with what appeared to be a fun commitment to go bad with it. .

After leaving Europe in 1933 to work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, von Neumann failed his driving test so many times that he had to bribe test takers to get his license. Every year he finds an excuse to buy a new car, preferably a huge Cadillac. “I’m on my way,” he will begin to tell his skeptical friends as he recalls another of his accidents. “The trees to the right are whizzing past me in order at 60 mph. Suddenly one of them entered my path. Boom! ”

This is one of the vivid anecdotes recounted in Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man from the Future, considered a biography of von Neumann but devoted more to the exploration of ideas and claim the technology he inspired.

Bhattacharya writes: “Von Neumann’s mathematical contributions in the mid-20th century now seem to be seen as more scientific with each passing year,” Bhattacharya writes, alluding to the book’s brilliant title. “His thinking is so relevant to the challenges we face today, that it’s tempting to wonder if he’s a time traveler, quietly seeding ideas that don’t exist. he knows is necessary to shape the future of the Earth.”

While von Neumann was alive, before his full influence could be assessed, his brilliance marked him not as a time traveler but as an alien – one of the called Mars, the nickname given to Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, including Edward. Teller, who worked on the secret atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. Naturally, the intellectually omnivorous von Neumann came up with his own theory of the “Hungarian phenomenon” (an acronym for the scientific achievements of von Neumann and his countrymen), deciding that it has something to do with a combination of Austro-Hungarian liberalism. and feudalism gave the Jews some avenues to success while preventing them from moving away from the real levers of power. This caused “a great sense of insecurity,” von Neumann said, leading him and the Martians to believe that they needed to “create the anomaly or face extinction.”

This is an introspective and dark assessment from someone who may have foretold World War II in Europe but is also remembered as “a cheerful person, an optimist, a money lover and a firm believer.” into the progress of man,” in the words of one of his lifelong friends. . Bhattacharya, a science journalist also holds a Ph. in physics, do not probe too deeply into these apparent contradictions. We take a quick tour through the first three decades of von Neumann’s life – born in Budapest in 1903, he was a mathematical prodigy who lived an almost exceptional life – before when we landed in Princeton, where his real-world influence quickly exploded.

Credit…K. Rietzler

Von Neumann came of age when mathematics was not considered a “realistic” profession. He also studied chemistry, as a quirk to his father, an investment banker – banking was another field that would later become another area of ​​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 will travel around the country, teaching and consulting, mostly at Los Alamos. Bhattacharya cites a report that von Neumann compiled for the US Navy, detailing how the “angle of incidence” could make the detonation of a bomb more powerful. The report might have been written for a military audience, but von Neumann seemed so excited about his own reasons that he resorted to an exclamation point.

Bhattacharya shows that his unflinchingly frank treatment of “moral problems” earned von Neumann the reputation of hawkishness, as well as his support for the “war” logic. prevent”. He advocated destroying the Soviet nuclear arsenal with a surprise attack (“If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?”) – an opinion which he later backed off. However, Bhattacharya also said that von Neumann, as a “Central European at its core,” believed that people would work together for their common good, which he incorporated into his approach. approach game theory. So who is he? Central Europe full of hope or cold warrior?

As Bhattacharya puts it, he is “a complex character,” and there are tantalizing glimmers of human strangeness and complexity in this book. But “The Man From The Future” can sometimes seem too focused on explaining that future – narrating the fate of von Neumann’s ideas long before his death, from cancer, in 1957 – so much so that the man himself withdrew from view.

The skill with which Bhattacharya pokes at dense scientific concepts leaves me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, what we see about von Neumann hints at a fascinating personality that I would like to know more about; on the other hand, there might be something to be said for listening intently to the brain output of someone whose daughter once observed, “My dad’s first love in life thought”.

Besides, von Neumann, once a restless pollinator, might have approved of his biographer’s approach: “Busy with so many other things, he would rush in, give lectures in the an hour or two on the relationship between information and entropy or circuits for logical reasoning, and then it goes off again – leaving the bewildered attendees discussing the implications of whatever he said throughout. afternoon. “

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/23/books/review-man-from-future-john-von-neumann-ananyo-bhattacharya.html ‘Man from the Future’ recounts the life of a restless genius

Fry Electronics Team

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