“The Man of the Future” chronicles the life of a restless genius
THE MAN OF THE FUTURE
The visionary life of John von Neumann
By Ananyo Bhattacharya
Illustrated. 353pages. WW Norton & Company. $30.
Mathematician John von Neumann was an undeniable genius whose many accomplishments included a pivotal role in the development of quantum mechanics, computer science, and the atomic bomb. As co-author of one of the first textbooks on game theory, he took a coldly analytical approach to a range of situations that included poker bluffing and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Yet 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, as well as what seemed like a commitment happy to be terrible in this area. .
After leaving Europe in 1933 for a spirit life at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, von Neumann failed the driving test so many times he had to bribe the examiner to get his driving licence. Every year he found an excuse to buy a new car, preferably a huge Cadillac. “I was moving along the road,” he began to say to his incredulous friends, recalling another of his accidents. “The trees on the right were neatly passing me at 60 miles per hour. Suddenly one of them got in my way. Boom!”
It’s one of many vivid anecdotes told in Ananyo Bhattacharya’s “Man from the Future,” which bills itself as a biography of von Neumann, but is more about exploring ideas and technological research than he inspired.
“The mathematical contributions that von Neumann made in the mid-twentieth century now seem more eerily prescient with each passing year,” writes Bhattacharya, alluding to the excellent title of this book. “His thinking is so relevant to the challenges we face today that it’s tempting to wonder if he was a time traveler, quietly seeding ideas he knew would be needed to shape the future of Earth.”
When von Neumann was alive, before the full significance of his influence could be gauged, his genius marked him not as a time traveler but as an extraterrestrial – one of the so-called Martians, the nickname Hungarian Jewish émigrés, 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 theories about the “Hungarian Phenomenon” (the shorthand term for the scientific achievements of von Neumann and his compatriots), deciding it had something to do with Austro-Hungarian mixing. of liberalism. and feudalism, which offered Jews a few paths to success while alienating them from the real levers of power. This caused “a feeling of extreme insecurity,” von Neumann said, making him and his fellow Mars believe that they had to “produce the unusual or face extinction.”
It was a somber, introspective assessment from someone who may have anticipated World War II in Europe, but was also remembered as “a merry man, a money-loving optimist and a firm believer in human progress”, in the words of one of his lifelong friends. . Bhattacharya, a science journalist who also holds a Ph.D. in physics, does not delve too deeply into these apparent contradictions. We take a quick tour of the first three decades of von Neumann’s life – born in Budapest in 1903, he was a mathematical prodigy who lived an essentially privileged existence – before landing in Princeton, where his influence in the real world quickly took off.
Von Neumann came of age when mathematics was not considered a “practical” profession. He also studied chemistry, as an associate of his father, an investment banker – banking being another area that would later come under the sway 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 traveled across the country, teaching and consulting, mostly in Los Alamos. Bhattacharya cites a report von Neumann prepared for the US Navy, detailing how “the angle of incidence” could make a bomb detonation more destructive. The report may have been written for a military audience, but von Neumann seems so excited by his own reasoning that he resorts to exclamation marks.
Bhattacharya shows how this frank and unapologetic treatment of “morally heavy matters” earned von Neumann a reputation as a hawk, as did his support for the logic of “preventive war”. He advocated destroying 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 he later backtracked. Yet Bhattacharya also says that von Neumann, as a “Central European at heart” person, believed that people would work together for 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 explaining that future – recounting the fate of von Neumann’s ideas long after his death from cancer in 1957 – that the man himself out of sight.
The skill with which Bhattacharya unravels dense scientific concepts left me with an ambivalent feeling. On the one hand, what we see of von Neumann alludes to such a fascinating personality that I wanted to know more; on the other, maybe there’s something to be said for focusing so intensely on the brain output of someone whose daughter once observed: “My father’s first love in life was to think.
Moreover, von Neumann, ever the restless pollinator, may have approved of his biographer’s approach: information and entropy or logical reasoning circuits, then walk away – leaving puzzled attendees to discuss the implications of everything he said for the rest of the afternoon.