Beautiful Minds: John von Neuman

Polymath genius, John von Neumann with the stored-program computer at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, in 1945. Photograph: Getty.

By right, John von Neumann (1903 – 1957) should be as famous as Albert Einstein. His genius was comparable and his work had more tangible results. Einstein revolutionized our view of space and time. Von Neumann created the first digital programmable computer, designed the atom bomb, conjured up game theory, foreshadowed the birth of artificial intelligence and together with the Polish physicist, Stanislaw Ulam, invented Monte Carlo simulation, a technique with far-reaching applications in all branches of science. Yet von Neumann is largely forgotten by the public. Why? This is a question that dogged science journalist Ananyo Bhattacharya who answers it in his new book The Man from the Future (2021, Allen Lane).

Born in Budapest at the turn of the century, von Neumann is one of the most influential scientists to have ever lived. His colleagues believed he had the fastest brain on the planet – bar none. But von Neumann was anything but a head-in-the-sand nerd. He was known to be idiosyncratic and entertaining, loved lavish parties and threw parties regularly in his home at Princeton, home to the famous Institute of Advance Study (IAS) where he was hired at the salary of a superstar.

Von Neumann at Los Alamos in the early 1940s, where his work had a decisive effect on the development of two overwhelmingly important aspects of 20th and 21st century technology – the computer and the development of nuclear weapons.

Taking us on an astonishing journey, Bhattacharya explores how a combination of genius and unique historical circumstance during the cold war period allowed a single man to sweep through so many different fields of science, sparking revolutions wherever he went. Bhattacharya guides readers through the seminal ideas that von Neumann conjured which built the modern world while unmasking the man behind them. The reason we don’t know more about von Neumann, according to Bhattacharya, is that the public already has one singular icon of a scientific genius – Albert Einstein. This seems something of an injustice to Bhattacharya, for a man of von Neumann’s stature, whose “thinking is so pertinent to the challenges we face today that it is tempting to wonder if he was a time traveler, quietly seeding ideas that he knew would be needed to shape the Earth’s future.” Altogether, The Man from the Future is a sparkling book with an intoxicating mix of pen-portraits and grand historical narrative filled with a dizzying mix of brilliant ideas to satisfy anyone interested in the history of modern science.

The Man from the Future

The Man from the Future : The Visionary Life of John von Neumann (Allen Lane, UK. Hardback, Oct 2021)

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