March 30, 2022

John von Neumann

John von Neumann

Source: Los Alamos National Security, LLC

The 1940s, when so many new technologies such as atomic weapons and computers were rushed into existence, remains the peak real-life science-fiction decade. So there’s a steady demand from highbrow readers for biographies of the various Manhattan Project superheroes. The latest is The Man From the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann by Ananyo Bhattacharya.

The polymath John von Neumann (1903–1957) was the most spectacularly brilliant of “The Martians,” the ethnically Jewish Hungarian geniuses at Los Alamos who spoke English with Count Dracula accents.

Reading The Man From the Future, it’s hard not to acknowledge mathematics as the king of the disciplines. Von Neumann was first and foremost a mathematician, a protégé of David Hilbert, the most influential mathematician of the early 20th century. He delighted Hilbert by offering, as a teenager, a response to Bertrand Russell’s Paradox that was undermining confidence in Hilbert’s program for mathematical progress.

“Von Neumann annoyed his neighbor Einstein by playing marching band records loudly in his office.”

From von Neumann’s position of strength on the intellectual high ground of math, the adult prodigy then conducted a series of lightning raids on lesser fields:

—Physics (helping reconcile the seemingly conflicting quantum-mechanics approaches of Heisenberg and Schrödinger).

—Engineering (leading the design of the implosion device for triggering the first-ever atomic bomb, which was exploded at Trinity, New Mexico, in July 1945).

—Economics (more or less inventing the subject of game theory and coining the useful term “zero-sum game”).

—Computer science (articulating in 1945 the von Neumann architecture that instantly became the standard way to design general-purpose computers; note that he didn’t invent the computer, but his clarity of mind and prestige helped get the American computer industry off to a quick start on the right foot).

—Nuclear war strategy (hanging out at the early RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, von Neumann offered ideas for dealing with the Soviets that tended to be less Dr. Strangelove than Gen. Buck Turgidson. Like the leftist pacifist Russell in the late 1940s, von Neumann kicked around the idea of nuking the Soviets before they got the Bomb and could retaliate).

—Psychology (writing a book on the subject while dying of cancer).

What couldn’t von Neumann do? Bhattacharya lists a few of the great man’s shortcomings: He hated sports and anything else you couldn’t do in a well-tailored business suit, was a bad driver, had little musical ability, was not terribly interested in hearing about the feelings of the women in his life, and was an enthusiastic but mediocre chess player. Fascinatingly, an endnote mentions that the inventor of game theory was a notoriously poor poker player.

Von Neumann grew up haute bourgeois in Budapest, where his father was elevated to the Austro-Hungarian nobility when he was 9. He despised the few months of Bela Kun’s communist dictatorship in 1919 and remained a man of the center-right ever after. 

He combined a generally conservative posture with an emphasis on cooperation—for instance, he used his massive influence to keep the new electronic computer from being tied down by patents and secrecy, arguing that America needed as many companies working smartly on computers as possible. Therefore, he published the plans for the computer he oversaw in the late 1940s. The huge lead American capitalism built up in digital technology by following this strategy helped win the Cold War decades later.

On the other hand, von Neumann’s love of collaboration sometimes backfired. At Los Alamos in May 1946, he filed a patent application for a hydrogen bomb along with Klaus Fuchs, who (unbeknownst to the staunchly anti-communist von Neumann) turned out to be a Soviet spy.

Von Neumann led a peripatetic life. For instance, he simultaneously earned a doctorate in mathematics in Budapest and, to please his father who worried there was no money in math, another doctorate in chemical engineering in Zurich.

He could work anywhere except the quiet study his wife prepared for him, preferring when at home in New Jersey to do his math in the living room with the TV blaring. The ivory tower Institute for Advanced Studies near Princeton, where von Neumann was employed from 1933 onward, was immensely prestigious (von Neumann was likely only its third most famous physicist after Einstein and Oppenheimer) but was also culturally ill-suited for his need for a racket. He annoyed his neighbor Einstein by playing marching band records loudly in his office. And the other sages didn’t approve of the off-putting nerds he hired to build and program his computer.

Von Neumann had felt at home in America from his first visit. At age 50, he signed a contract to leave IAS, an outpost of European culture, for sunny UCLA, where he would have focused on computing. But cancer kept him from moving.

It’s interesting to ask whether if von Neumann had been at UCLA into the 1970s promoting computers with his usual energy, would Westwood have become the center of the tech world instead of Stanford’s similar Palo Alto?

Probably not, I’d guess. Stanford’s Fred Terman hit upon the exact right formula for integrating academia, the military-industrial complex, and entrepreneurialism. Von Neumann liked earning and spending money, but I suspect 1954 was already too late to have derailed the nascent Stanford juggernaut. But a von Neumann-led Silicon Beach might have edged out suburban Boston’s once-famous Route 128 to be a center of Cold War defense industry computing (the top brass loved von Neumann).

In the decade after the war, von Neumann was America’s top all-purpose consultant. He had an immense number of meetings with lesser mortals, many of whom came away with an anecdote about his intelligence. For a book about such an amazing character, Bhattacharya’s biography is a little dry: Focusing more on explaining his hero’s ideas, the author has an aversion to ladling on more than a tastefully limited number of the countless gee-whiz anecdotes about von Neumann. 

Instead, Bhattacharya does something I haven’t seen too often in a biography, many of which devote endless throat-clearing pages to the predecessors of the great man. Instead, he writes at length about von Neumann’s successors, the bright guys who carried on with the head Martian’s manifold ideas, such as Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling, John McCarthy, Stephen Wolfram, and so forth.

On the other hand, deemphasizing von Neumann in a von Neumann biography is probably not one of the best marketing strategies in publishing history. And The Man From the Future doesn’t work as a career-advice airport book, since the author is honest that von Neumann’s one weird trick was being one of history’s greatest mathematicians.

Oddly, my favorite character in The Man From the Future is von Neumann’s coauthor on the 1944 surprise best-seller Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, Austrian economist Oskar Morgenstern. As described by Bhattacharya, the relationship between von Neumann and Morgenstern is reminiscent of that in Vladimir Nabokov’s dazzling comic novel Pale Fire between the Robert Frost-like poet John Shade and the disagreeable and perhaps demented émigré professor Charles Kinbote, who wants Shade to write an epic poem about how he is secretly King Charles the Beloved, deposed monarch of the Soviet satellite state of Zembla. 

Similarly, Morgenstern constantly feuded with his departmental colleagues at Princeton U. while futilely plotting to get hired at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Never having bothered to learn much math, Morgenstern’s main contribution to their book was keeping von Neumann amused by asking interesting questions while von Neumann wrote 600 pages of dense mathematics. And Morgenstern kept a picture of Kaiser Frederick III of Germany in his office, whom he told everybody was his grandfather (and probably was).


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!