Von Neumann, at about age 6. Photo from the collection of Marina von Neumann Whitman.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1915

Budapest, Hungary

John von Neumann at age 11 with his cousin Katalin Alcsuti.

College/University

Career

Gallery of John von Neumann

1938

Everglades National Park, Florida, United States

Von Neumann in the Florida Everglades in 1938.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1940

United States

John von Neumann in 1940.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1943

United States

The photo from von Neumann’s Los Alamos ID badge.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1944

New Mexico 87545, United States

John von Neumann talking with Richard Feynman and Stanislaw Ulam in Los Alamos

Gallery of John von Neumann

1947

1 Einstein Dr, Princeton, NJ 08540, United States

Hungarian-born mathematician and physicist John von Neumann (center, in striped suit) chats with graduate students during afternoon tea at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, November 1947. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1950

United States

John von Neumann outdoors, around 1950.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1950

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

Photo of part of the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study, including its most famous resident Albert Einstein, and John von Neumann, visible in the background.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1952

United States

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and Dr. John von Neumann stand in front of a new electronic "brain," the fastest computing machine for its degree of precision yet made.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1953

United States

John von Neumann with his wife Klari Dan and their dog. Early 1950s.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1954

Princeton, New Jersey, United States

Dr. John von Neumann at Princeton, New Jersey, in October 1954.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1954

United States

Portrait photo of John von Neuman, American mathematician.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1954

United States

John von Neumann portrait photo taken in 1954.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1955

United States

Dr. John von Neumann in 1955.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1956

United States

John von Neumann portrait photo taken in 1956.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1957

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

Famous mathematician Professor John von Neumann at lecture giving an extemporaneous lecture on his work on computing machines in front of the American Philosophical Society. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Gallery of John von Neumann

1995

Washington, DC, United States

Hungarian-born American mathematician Dr. John von Neumann testifies before the US Congressional Atomic Energy Committee, Washington, DC, March 8, 1955.

Achievements

Membership

National Academy of Sciences

John von Neumann was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences

John von Neumann was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

American Philosophical Society

John von Neumann was a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

John von Neumann was a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Academia Nacional de Ciencias Exactas

John von Neumann was a member of the Academia Nacional de Ciencias Exactas.

Academia dei Lincei

John von Neumann was a member of the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei.

Instituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere

John von Neumann was a member of the Instituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere.

Awards

Presidential Medal of Freedom

1956

1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500, United States

John von Neumann accepting the Medal of Freedom from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Hungarian-born mathematician and physicist John von Neumann (center, in striped suit) chats with graduate students during afternoon tea at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, November 1947. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Photo of part of the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study, including its most famous resident Albert Einstein, and John von Neumann, visible in the background.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and Dr. John von Neumann stand in front of a new electronic "brain," the fastest computing machine for its degree of precision yet made.

Famous mathematician Professor John von Neumann at lecture giving an extemporaneous lecture on his work on computing machines in front of the American Philosophical Society. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Hungarian-born American mathematician Dr. John von Neumann testifies before the US Congressional Atomic Energy Committee, Washington, DC, March 8, 1955.

(Quantum mechanics was still in its infancy in 1932 when t...)

Quantum mechanics was still in its infancy in 1932 when the young John von Neumann, who would go on to become one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, published Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics - a revolutionary book that for the first time provided a rigorous mathematical framework for the new science. Robert Beyer's 1955 English translation, which von Neumann reviewed and approved, is cited more frequently today than ever before. But its many treasures and insights were too often obscured by the limitations of the way the text and equations were set on the page. In this new edition of this classic work, mathematical physicist Nicholas Wheeler has completely reset the book in TeX, making the text and equations far easier to read. He has also corrected a handful of typographic errors, revised some sentences for clarity and readability, provided an index for the first time, and added prefatory remarks drawn from the writings of Léon Van Hove and Freeman Dyson. The result brings new life to an essential work in theoretical physics and mathematics.

(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.

(With an introductory chapter describing the many aspects ...)

With an introductory chapter describing the many aspects of von Neumann's scientific, political, and social activities, this book makes great reading. Readers of quite diverse backgrounds will be fascinated by this first-hand look at one of the towering figures of twentieth-century science.

John von Neumann was a Hungarian-born American mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist. He was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics, in the development of functional analysis. Along with fellow physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam, von Neumann worked out key steps in the nuclear physics involving thermonuclear reactions and the hydrogen bomb.

Background

John von Neumann was born János Lajos Neumann on December 28, 1903, in Budapest, Hungary. He was the eldest of three brothers. Von Neumann’s ancestors had originally immigrated to Hungary from Russia. He was called Jancsi as a child, a diminutive form of János, then later he was called Johnny in the United States. His mother was Margaret Kann. His father, Max Neumann, was a top banker, and he was brought up in an extended family, living in Budapest where as a child he learned languages from the German and French governesses that were employed. Although the family was Jewish, Max Neumann did not observe the strict practices of that religion and the household seemed to mix Jewish and Christian traditions. Max Neumann was eligible to apply for a hereditary title because of his contribution to the then successful Hungarian economy and in 1913 he paid a fee to acquire a title, but he did not change his name. His son, however, used the German form von Neumann where the "von" indicated the title.

Von Neumann was a child prodigy who showed an aptitude for languages, memorization, and mathematics. By the age of six, he could exchange jokes in Classical Greek, memorize telephone directories, and displayed prodigious mental calculation abilities.

Education

In 1911 von Neumann entered the Budapest-Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium. The school had a strong academic tradition which seemed to count for more than the religious affiliation both in Neumann's eyes and in those of the school. His mathematics teacher quickly recognized von Neumann's genius and special tuition was put on for him. The school had another outstanding mathematician one year ahead of von Neumann, namely Eugene Wigner.

World War I had relatively little effect on von Neumann's education but, after the war ended, Béla Kun controlled Hungary for five months in 1919 with a Communist government. The Neumann family fled to Austria as the affluent came under attack. However, after a month, they returned to face the problems of Budapest. When Kun's government failed, the fact that it had been largely composed of Jews meant that Jewish people were blamed. Such situations are devoid of logic and the fact that the Neumann's were opposed to Kun's government did not save them from persecution.

In 1921 von Neumann completed his education at the Gymnasium. His first mathematics paper, written jointly with Fekete the assistant at the University of Budapest who had been tutoring him, was published in 1922. However, Max Neumann did not want his son to take up a subject that would not bring him wealth. Max Neumann asked Theodore von Kármán to speak to his son and persuade him to follow a career in business. Perhaps von Kármán was the wrong person to ask to undertake such a task but in the end all agreed on the compromise subject of chemistry for von Neumann's university studies.

Hungary was not an easy country for those of Jewish descent for many reasons and there was a strict limit on the number of Jewish students who could enter the University of Budapest. Of course, even with a strict quota, von Neumann's record easily won him a place to study mathematics in 1921, but he did not attend lectures. Instead, he also entered the University of Berlin in 1921 to study chemistry.

Von Neumann studied chemistry at the University of Berlin until 1923 when he went to Zürich. He achieved outstanding results in the mathematics examinations at the University of Budapest despite not attending any courses. Von Neumann received his diploma in chemical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 1926. While in Zürich he continued his interest in mathematics, despite studying chemistry, and interacted with Weyl and Pólya who were both at Zürich. He even took over one of Weyl's courses when he was absent from Zürich for a time.

Von Neumann received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Budapest, also in 1926, with a thesis on set theory. He published a definition of ordinal numbers when he was 20, the definition is the one used today. However, he also held a Rockefeller Fellowship to enable him to undertake postdoctoral studies at the University of Göttingen. He studied under Hilbert at Göttingen during 1926-1927.

John von Neumann lectured at Berlin from 1926 to 1929 and at Hamburg from 1929 to 1930. At the same time he took postdoctoral studies at the University of Göttingen under Hilbert. By this time von Neumann had achieved celebrity status.

Veblen invited von Neumann to Princeton to lecture on quantum theory in 1929. Replying to Veblen that he would come after attending to some personal matters, von Neumann went to Budapest where he married his fiancée Marietta Kovesi before setting out for the United States. In 1930 von Neumann became a visiting lecturer at Princeton University, being appointed professor there in 1931.

Between 1930 and 1933 von Neumann taught at Princeton but this was not one of his strong points. He became one of the original six mathematics professors (J. W. Alexander, A. Einstein, M. Morse, O. Veblen, J. von Neumann and H. Weyl) in 1933 at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a position he kept for the remainder of his life.

During the first years that he was in the United States, von Neumann continued to return to Europe during the summers. Until 1933 he still held academic posts in Germany but resigned these when the Nazis came to power. Unlike many others, von Neumann was not a political refugee but rather he went to the United States mainly because he thought that the prospect of academic positions there was better than in Germany.

In 1933 von Neumann became co-editor of the Annals of Mathematics and, two years later, he became co-editor of Compositio Mathematica. He held both these editorships until his death.

During and after World War II, von Neumann served as a consultant to the armed forces. His valuable contributions included a proposal of the implosion method for bringing nuclear fuel to explosion and his participation in the development of the hydrogen bomb. From 1940 he was a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee at the Ballistic Research Laboratories at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. He was a member of the Navy Bureau of Ordnance from 1941 to 1955, and a consultant to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory from 1943 to 1955. 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 center. 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. From 1950 to 1955 he was a member of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project in Washington, D.C. In 1955 President Eisenhower appointed him to the Atomic Energy Commission, and in 1956 he received its Enrico Fermi Award, knowing that he was incurably ill with cancer.

A lifelong agnostic, shortly before his death von Neumann converted to Roman Catholicism.

Politics

John von Neumann was "a violent anti-communist and much more militaristic than the norm," according to his own words from one of the Senate committee hearings. He was an advocate of the "preventive war" strategy against the Soviet Union, and was quoted in 1950:

"If you say why not bomb [the Soviets] tomorrow, I say, why not today. If you say today at five o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?"

Views

Von Neumann commenced his intellectual career at a time when the influence of David Hilbert and his program of establishing axiomatic foundations for mathematics was at a peak. A paper von Neumann wrote while still at the Lutheran Gymnasium ("The Introduction of Transfinite Ordinals," published 1923) supplied the now-conventional definition of an ordinal number as the set of all smaller ordinal numbers. This neatly avoids some of the complications raised by Georg Cantor’s transfinite numbers.

Von Neumann also claimed to prove that deterministic "hidden variables" cannot underlie quantum phenomena. This influential result pleased Niels Bohr and Heisenberg and played a strong role in convincing physicists to accept the indeterminacy of quantum theory. In contrast, the result dismayed Albert Einstein, who refused to abandon his belief in determinism. Ironically, Irish-born physicist John Stewart Bell demonstrated in the mid-1960s that von Neumann’s proof was flawed; Bell then fixed the proof’s shortcomings, reaffirming von Neumann’s conclusion that hidden variables were unnecessary.

By his mid-twenties, von Neumann found himself pointed out as a wunderkind at conferences. (He claimed that mathematical powers start to decline at age 26, after which experience can conceal the deterioration for a time.) Von Neumann produced a staggering succession of pivotal papers in logic, set theory, group theory, ergodic theory, and operator theory. Herman Goldstine and Eugene Wigner noted that, of all the principal branches of mathematics, it was only in topology and number theory that von Neumann failed to make an important contribution.

In 1928 von Neumann published "Theory of Parlor Games," a key paper in the field of game theory. The nominal inspiration was the game of poker. Game theory focuses on the element of bluffing, a feature distinct from the pure logic of chess or the probability theory of roulette. Though von Neumann knew of the earlier work of the French mathematician Émile Borel, he gave the subject mathematical substance by proving the mini-max theorem.

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.

Von Neumann’s magnum opus of applied math, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), was co-written 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 Morgenstern 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.

Von Neumann lobbied to build an improved computer at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). The IAS machine, which began operating in 1951, 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 (1945-1951) 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.

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.

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."

Membership

John von Neumann was elected to many academies including the Academia Nacional de Ciencias Exactas, Academia Nazionale dei Lincei, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, Instituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, National Academy of Sciences, and Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and Letters.

National Academy of Sciences
,
United States

American Academy of Arts and Sciences
,
United States

American Philosophical Society
,
United States

Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
,
Netherlands

Academia Nacional de Ciencias Exactas
,
Peru

Academia dei Lincei
,
Italy

Instituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere
,
Italy

Personality

John 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." He nonetheless enjoyed driving - frequently while reading a book - occasioning numerous arrests, as well as accidents.

Von Neumann took great care of his clothing and would always wear formal suits. He also liked to eat and drink. 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 neighboring offices 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.

Parties and nightlife held a special appeal for von Neumann. While teaching in Germany, von Neumann had been a denizen of the Cabaret-era Berlin nightlife circuit. After his wedding, the parties at von Neumann's house were frequent, famous, and long.

Physical Characteristics:
Von Neumann was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1955. He continued to work even as his health deteriorated rapidly.

Quotes from others about the person

"I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann's does not indicate a species superior to that of man." - Hans Bethe

Interests

ancient history, poker

Politicians

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Writers

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henry Adams

Sport & Clubs

cycling

Athletes

Goethe

Music & Bands

German marching music

Connections

In 1930 von Neumann married Mariette Kövesi. They had one child, Marina, who later gained prominence as an economist. Von Neumann’s first marriage ended in 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 until 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.