John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More

(This volume is the reprinted edition of the first full-sc...)

This volume is the reprinted edition of the first full-scale biography of the man widely regarded as the greatest scientist of the century after Einstein. Born in Budapest in 1903, John von Neumann grew up in one of the most extraordinary of scientific communities. From his arrival in America in the mid-1930s--with bases in Boston, Princeton, Washington, and Los Alamos--von Neumann pioneered and participated in the major scientific and political dramas of the next three decades, leaving his mark on more fields of scientific endeavor than any other scientist. Von Neumann's work in areas such as game theory, mathematics, physics, and meteorology formed the building blocks for the most important discoveries of the century: the modern computer, game theory, the atom bomb, radar, and artificial intelligence, to name just a few. From the laboratory to the highest levels of government, this definitive biography gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the politics and personalities involved in these world-changing discoveries. Written more than 30 years after von Neumann's untimely death at age 54, it was prepared with the cooperation of his family and includes information gained from interviewing countless sources across Europe and America. Norman Macrae paints a highly readable, humanizing portrait of a man whose legacy still influences and shapes modern science and knowledge.

The Computer and the Brain (The Silliman Memorial Lectures Series)

(In this classic work, one of the greatest mathematicians ...)

In this classic work, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century explores the analogies between computing machines and the living human brain. John von Neumann, whose many contributions to science, mathematics, and engineering include the basic organizational framework at the heart of today's computers, concludes that the brain operates both digitally and analogically, but also has its own peculiar statistical language. In his foreword to this new edition, Ray Kurzweil, a futurist famous in part for his own reflections on the relationship between technology and intelligence, places von Neumann’s work in a historical context and shows how it remains relevant today.

Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (Princeton Classic Editions)

(This is the classic work upon which modern-day game theor...)

This is the classic work upon which modern-day game theory is based. What began more than sixty years ago as a modest proposal that a mathematician and an economist write a short paper together blossomed, in 1944, when Princeton University Press published Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. In it, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern conceived a groundbreaking mathematical theory of economic and social organization, based on a theory of games of strategy. Not only would this revolutionize economics, but the entirely new field of scientific inquiry it yielded--game theory--has since been widely used to analyze a host of real-world phenomena from arms races to optimal policy choices of presidential candidates, from vaccination policy to major league baseball salary negotiations. And it is today established throughout both the social sciences and a wide range of other sciences. This sixtieth anniversary edition includes not only the original text but also an introduction by Harold Kuhn, an afterword by Ariel Rubinstein, and reviews and articles on the book that appeared at the time of its original publication in the New York Times, tthe American Economic Review, and a variety of other publications. Together, these writings provide readers a matchless opportunity to more fully appreciate a work whose influence will yet resound for generations to come.

Prisoner's Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb

(Should you watch public television without pledging?...Ex...)

Should you watch public television without pledging?...Exceed the posted speed limit?...Hop a subway turnstile without paying? These questions illustrate the so-called "prisoner's dilemma", a social puzzle that we all face every day. Though the answers may seem simple, their profound implications make the prisoner's dilemma one of the great unifying concepts of science. Watching players bluff in a poker game inspired John von Neumann—father of the modern computer and one of the sharpest minds of the century—to construct game theory, a mathematical study of conflict and deception. Game theory was readily embraced at the RAND Corporation, the archetypical think tank charged with formulating military strategy for the atomic age, and in 1950 two RAND scientists made a momentous discovery. Called the "prisoner's dilemma," it is a disturbing and mind-bending game where two or more people may betray the common good for individual gain. Introduced shortly after the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb, the prisoner's dilemma quickly became a popular allegory of the nuclear arms race. Intellectuals such as von Neumann and Bertrand Russell joined military and political leaders in rallying to the "preventive war" movement, which advocated a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. Though the Truman administration rejected preventive war the United States entered into an arms race with the Soviets and game theory developed into a controversial tool of public policy—alternately accused of justifying arms races and touted as the only hope of preventing them. A masterful work of science writing, Prisoner's Dilemma weaves together a biography of the brilliant and tragic von Neumann, a history of pivotal phases of the cold war, and an investigation of game theory's far-reaching influence on public policy today. Most important, Prisoner's Dilemma is the incisive story of a revolutionary idea that has been hailed as a landmark of twentieth-century thought.

(Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics was a revol...)

Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics was a revolutionary book that caused a sea change in theoretical physics. Here, John von Neumann, one of the leading mathematicians of the twentieth century, shows that great insights in quantum physics can be obtained by exploring the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics. He begins by presenting the theory of Hermitean operators and Hilbert spaces. These provide the framework for transformation theory, which von Neumann regards as the definitive form of quantum mechanics. Using this theory, he attacks with mathematical rigor some of the general problems of quantum theory, such as quantum statistical mechanics as well as measurement processes. Regarded as a tour de force at the time of publication, this book is still indispensable for those interested in the fundamental issues of quantum mechanics.

Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century

(If science has the equivalent of a Bloomsbury group, it i...)

If science has the equivalent of a Bloomsbury group, it is the five men born at the turn of the twentieth century in Budapest: Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller. From Hungary to Germany to the United States, they remained friends and continued to work together and influence each other throughout their lives. As a result, their work was integral to some of the most important scientific and political developments of the twentieth century. István Hargittai tells the story of this remarkable group: Wigner won a Nobel Prize in theoretical physics; Szilard was the first to see that a chain reaction based on neutrons was possible, initiated the Manhattan Project, but left physics to try to restrict nuclear arms; von Neumann could solve difficult problems in his head and developed the modern computer for more complex problems; von Kármán became the first director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, providing the scientific basis for the U.S. Air Force; and Teller was the father of the hydrogen bomb, whose name is now synonymous with the controversial "Star Wars" initiative of the 1980s. Each was fiercely opinionated, politically active, and fought against all forms of totalitarianism. Hargittai, as a young Hungarian physical chemist, was able to get to know some of these great men in their later years, and the depth of information and human interest in The Martians of Science is the result of his personal relationships with the subjects, their families, and their contemporaries.

John von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, inventor, computer scientist, and polymath. He made major contributions to a number of fields, including mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, representation theory, operator algebras, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and quantum statistical mechanics), economics (game theory).

Background

Von Neumann was born Neumann János Lajos to a wealthy, acculturated and non-observant Jewish family (in Hungarian the family name comes first and his given names equate to John Louis in English). His Hebrew name was Yonah. Von Neumann's place of birth was Budapest in the Kingdom of Hungary which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the eldest of three children. He had two younger brothers: Michael, born in 1907, and Nicholas, who was born in 1911. His father, Neumann Miksa (English: Max Neumann) was a banker, who held a doctorate in law. He had moved to Budapest from Pécs at the end of the 1880s. Miksa's father and grandfather were both born in Ond (now part of the town of Szerencs), Zemplén County, northern Hungary. John's mother was Kann Margit (English: Margaret Kann); her parents were Jakab Kann and Katalin Meisels. Three generations of the Kann family lived in spacious apartments above the Kann-Heller offices in Budapest; von Neumann's family occupied an 18-room apartment on the top floor.

In 1913, his father was elevated to the nobility for his service to the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Emperor Franz Joseph. The Neumann family thus acquired the hereditary appellation Margittai, meaning of Marghita. The family had no connection with the town; the appellation was chosen in reference to Margaret, as was those chosen coat of arms depicting three marguerites. Neumann János became Margittai Neumann János (John Neumann of Marghita), which he later changed to the German Johann von Neumann.

Education

Von Neumann was a child prodigy. As a 6 year old, he could multiply and divide two 8-digit numbers in his head, and could converse in Ancient Greek. When he once caught his mother staring aimlessly in front of her, the 6 year old von Neumann asked her: "What are you calculating?"

Formal schooling did not start in Hungary until the age of ten. Instead, governesses taught von Neumann, his brothers and his cousins. Max believed that knowledge of languages other than Hungarian was essential, so the children were tutored in English, French, German and Italian. By the age of 8, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, but he was particularly interested in history, reading his way through Wilhelm Oncken's 46-volume Allgemeine Geschichte in Einzeldarstellungen. A copy was contained in a private library Max purchased. One of the rooms in the apartment was converted into a library and reading room, with bookshelves from ceiling to floor.

Von Neumann entered the Lutheran Fasori Evangelikus Gimnázium in 1911. This was one of the best schools in Budapest, part of a brilliant education system designed for the elite. Under the Hungarian system, children received all their education at the one gymnasium. Despite being run by the Lutheran Church, the majority of its pupils were Jewish. The school system produced a generation noted for intellectual achievement, that included Theodore von Kármán (b. 1881), George de Hevesy (b. 1885), Leó Szilárd (b. 1898), Eugene Wigner (b. 1902), Edward Teller (b. 1908), and Paul Erdős (b. 1913). Collectively, they were sometimes known as Martians. Wigner was a year ahead of von Neumann at the Lutheran School. When asked why the Hungary of his generation had produced so many geniuses, Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, replied that von Neumann was the only genius.

Career

In 1929 von Neumann was asked to lecture on quantum theory at Princeton University. This led to an appointment as visiting professor (1930–33). He was remembered as a mediocre teacher, prone to write quickly and erase the blackboard before students could copy what he had written.

In 1930 von Neumann married Mariette Koevesi. They had one child, Marina, who later gained prominence as an economist. In 1933 von Neumann became one of the first professors at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton, New Jersey. The same year, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, and von Neumann relinquished his German academic posts. In a much-quoted comment on the Nazi regime, von Neumann wrote, “If these boys continue for only two more years…they will ruin German science for a generation—at least.”

Von Neumann’s first marriage ended in a divorce after Mariette fell in love with physicist Horner Kuper. Their 1937 separation was amicable and provided for Marina to spend her teenage years with her father. Von Neumann promptly rekindled ties with a childhood sweetheart, Klara Dan, who was herself married to someone else. Dan divorced her husband and married von Neumann in 1938. This second marriage lasted to the end of von Neumann’s life, though the couple’s letters betray a near-continuous history of quarrels and perceived slights. Klara was an intelligent woman who shared many of her husband’s interests and took jobs programming computers.

Motivated by a continuing desire to develop mathematical techniques suited to quantum phenomena, von Neumann introduced a theory of rings of operators, now known as von Neumann algebras (1929 through the 1940s). Other achievements include a proof of the quasi-ergodic hypothesis (1932) and important work in lattice theory (1935–37). It was not only the new physics that commanded von Neumann’s attention. A 1932 Princeton lecture, “On Certain Equations of Economics and a Generalization of Brouwer’s Fixed Point Theorem” (published 1937), was a seminal contribution to linear and nonlinear programming in economics. “Almost Periodic Functions and Groups” (1934–35) was awarded the American Mathematical Society’s Bôcher Prize in 1938.

Though no longer a teacher, von Neumann became a Princeton legend. It was said that he played practical jokes on Einstein, could recite verbatim books that he had read years earlier, and could edit assembly-language computer code in his head. Von Neumann’s natural diplomacy helped him move easily among Princeton’s intelligentsia, where he often adopted a tactful modesty. He once said he felt he had not lived up to all that had been expected of him. Never much like the stereotypical mathematician, he was known as a wit, bon vivant, and aggressive driver—his frequent auto accidents led to one Princeton intersection being dubbed “von Neumann corner.”

In late 1943 von Neumann began work on the Manhattan Project at the invitation of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Von Neumann was an expert in the nonlinear physics of hydrodynamics and shock waves, an expertise that he had already applied to chemical explosives in the British war effort. At Los Alamos, New Mexico, von Neumann worked on Seth Neddermeyer’s implosion design for an atomic bomb. This called for a hollow sphere containing fissionable plutonium to be symmetrically imploded in order to drive the plutonium into a critical mass at the centre. The implosion had to be so symmetrical that it was compared to crushing a beer can without splattering any beer. Adapting an idea proposed by James Tuck, von Neumann calculated that a “lens” of faster- and slower-burning chemical explosives could achieve the needed degree of symmetry. The Fat Man atomic bomb, dropped on the Japanese port of Nagasaki, used this design. Von Neumann participated in the selection of a Japanese target, arguing against bombing the Imperial Palace, Tokyo.

Overlapping with this work was von Neumann’s magnum opus of applied math, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), cowritten with Princeton economist Oskar Morgenstern. Game theory had been orphaned since the 1928 publication of “Theory of Parlor Games,” with neither von Neumann nor anyone else significantly developing it. The collaboration with Morgernstern burgeoned to 641 pages, the authors arguing for game theory as the “Newtonian science” underlying economic decisions. The book created a vogue for game theory among economists that has partly subsided. The theory has also had broad influence in fields ranging from evolutionary biology to defense planning.

In the postwar years, von Neumann spent increasing time as a consultant to government and industry. Starting in 1944, he contributed important ideas to the U.S. Army’s hard-wired ENIAC computer, designed by J. Presper Eckert, Jr., and John W. Mauchly. Most important, von Neumann modified ENIAC to run as a stored-program machine. He then lobbied to build an improved computer at the Institute for Advanced Study. The IAS machine, which began operating in 1951, used binary arithmetic—ENIAC had used decimal numbers—and shared the same memory for code and data, a design that greatly facilitated the “conditional loops” at the heart of all subsequent coding. Von Neumann’s publications on computer design (1945–51) created friction with Eckert and Mauchly, who sought to patent their contributions, and led to the independent construction of similar machines around the world. This established the merit of a single-processor, stored-program computer—the widespread architecture now known as a von Neumann machine. See also computer: Von Neumann’s “Preliminary Discussion” and BTW: Computer patent wars.

Another important consultancy was at the RAND Corporation, a think tank charged with planning nuclear strategy for the U.S. Air Force. Von Neumann insisted on the value of game-theoretic thinking in defense policy. He supported development of the hydrogen bomb and was reported to have advocated a preventive nuclear strike to destroy the Soviet Union’s nascent nuclear capability circa 1950. Despite his hawkish stance, von Neumann defended Oppenheimer against attacks on his patriotism and warned Edward Teller that his Livermore Laboratory (now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) cofounders were “too reactionary.” From 1954 until 1956, von Neumann served as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission and was an architect of the policy of nuclear deterrence developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration.

In his last years, von Neumann puzzled over the question of whether a machine could reproduce itself. Using an abstract model (a cellular automata), von Neumann outlined how a machine could reproduce itself from simple components. Key to this demonstration is that the machine reads its own “genetic” code, interpreting it first as instructions for constructing the machine exclusive of the code and second as data. In the second phase, the machine copies its code in order to create a completely “fertile” new machine. Conceptually, this work anticipated later discoveries in genetics.

Von Neumann was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1955. He continued to work even as his health deteriorated rapidly. In 1956 he received the Enrico Fermi Award. A lifelong agnostic, shortly before his death he converted to Roman Catholicism.

("A biography of St. John Neumann, who became Philadelphia...)

Personality

Von Neumann liked to eat and drink; his wife, Klara, said that he could count everything except calories. He enjoyed Yiddish and "off-color" humor (especially limericks). He was a non-smoker. At Princeton he received complaints for regularly playing extremely loud German march music on his gramophone, which distracted those in neighbouring offices, including Albert Einstein, from their work. Von Neumann did some of his best work in noisy, chaotic environments, and once admonished his wife for preparing a quiet study for him to work in. He never used it, preferring the couple's living room with its television playing loudly. Despite being a notoriously bad driver, he nonetheless enjoyed driving—frequently while reading a book—occasioning numerous arrests, as well as accidents. When Cuthbert Hurd hired him as a consultant to IBM, Hurd often quietly paid the fines for his traffic tickets.

Quotes from others about the person

Economist Paul Samuelson judged von Neumann “a genius (if that 18th century word still has a meaning)—a man so smart he saw through himself.” Von Neumann was part of a serial exodus of Hungarians who fled to Germany and then to America, forging remarkable careers in the sciences. His friend Stanislaw Ulam recalled von Neumann attributing this Hungarian phenomenon to “a subconscious feeling of extreme insecurity in individuals, and the necessity of producing the unusual or facing extinction.” Von Neumann’s shift to applied mathematics after the midpoint of his career mystified colleagues, who felt that a genius of his calibre should concern himself with “pure” mathematics. In an essay written for James Newman’s The World of Mathematics (1956), von Neumann made an eloquent defense of applied mathematics. He praised the invigorating influence of “some underlying empirical, worldly motif” in mathematics, warning that “at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much abstract inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration.” With his pivotal work on quantum theory, the atomic bomb, and the computer, von Neumann likely exerted a greater influence on the modern world than any other mathematician of the 20th century.

Connections

On New Year's Day in 1930, von Neumann married Mariette Kövesi, who had studied economics at Budapest University. Before his marriage he was baptized a Catholic. Max had died in 1929. None of the family had converted to Christianity while he was alive, but afterwards they all did. Von Neumann and Mariette had one child, a daughter, Marina, who as of 2016 is a distinguished professor of business administration and public policy at the University of Michigan. The couple divorced in 1937. In October 1938, von Neumann married Klara Dan, whom he had met during his last trips back to Budapest prior to the outbreak of World War II.

Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Award,
United States

He won this award in 1946. The Navy Distinguish

He won this award in 1946. The Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Award is the highest honorary award the secretary of the Navy can confer on a Department of the Navy civilian employee.

He won this award in 1946. The Medal for Merit was, during the period it was awarded, the highest civilian decoration of the United States, awarded by the President of the United States to civilians for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services ... since the proclamation of an emergency by the President on September 8, 1939".

He won this award in 1956. The Medal of Freedom was a decoration established by President Harry S. Truman to honor civilians whose actions aided in the war efforts of the United States and its allies. It was intended to be awarded by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, or the Secretary of the Navy, but it is known that Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy also authorized awards.

Enrico Fermi Award,
United States

He won this award in 1956. The Enrico Fermi Awa

He won this award in 1956. The Enrico Fermi Award is an award honoring scientists of international stature for their lifetime achievement in the development, use, or production of energy.