John von Neumann in front of the computer he built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Although his memory did not exceed 5 kilobytes, everyone agrees that everything started from this machine … Photo. SHELBY WHITE AND LEON LEVY ARCHIVES CENTER / INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED STUDY / ALAN RICHARDS
John von Neumann, the man of the future
translation: Stavros Panelis
Edited by: Nestoras Hounos
Final Review: Panagiotis Travlos
Ed. Travlos, 2022, p.544
How would you describe a man who founded quantum mechanics, invented much of the atomic bomb, built one of the first computers, invented game theory, but also “living” machines, without falling into the trap of idealizing the intelligence? From the very first pages of John von Neumann’s biography, author Ananio Battazaria is quick to describe the great mathematician as “a man of unimaginable intellect.” In his very detailed and fascinating book, he substantiates this claim through primary research, and in detail, by following the course of the scientific activity of a man of extraordinary intellectual abilities, who indeed seemed to come “from the future,” as notes in the bio. whose subtitle was recently published also in Greek by Travlos Publications, translated by Stavros Panelis. Along the way, he does not miss the opportunity to highlight the complex personality of the biographer, but far from moralizing.
With humor and passion.
Von Neumann is presented at a first level as one of us, with his weaknesses, passions and humor. As a professor at the Princeton Institute of Studies, a position he held from 1933 until his death in 1957, von Neumann “amused himself” by annoying his famous neighbors, such as Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel, by playing German expeditions to cross country. on the gramophone in his office,” writes Bhattacharya. Gradually, however, the narrative begins to take more and more the form of an intellectual adventure story. The magnitude of von Neumann’s thought threatens to dwarf all human dimensions. “Einstein caused a true revolution in the way of understanding time, space and gravity”, continues the British biographer, “Goedel, although not as famous, had the same effect in the field of mathematical logic. However, those who knew The three of them had no doubt that von Neumann was by far the most brilliant mind among them.In fact, his colleagues joked that von Neumann came from a higher species, but that he had studied human beings so well that he could imitate them perfectly.
His colleagues joked that von Neumann came from a higher species, but that he could imitate people perfectly.
Von Neumann, or “Johnny” as he liked to be called, was born in 1903 in Hungary. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 27, where he spent the rest of his life, writing a brilliant academic and professional career and a life rich in recognition. His scientific contribution was remarkable in many ways, since von Neumann never relied on his achievements. He began by establishing quantum theory mathematically by building “a rock of certainty,” as his biographer characteristically writes, “amidst a sea of possibilities,” then moved on to explosives and ballistics research, instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb, then he explored the creation of the first computers, but also self-replicating machines and, finally, he wrote the founding text of game theory. How much can be expected from a single spirit? Bhattacharya rightfully includes him in the chorus of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
The Manhattan Project
Even the most controversial story of von Neumann’s life, his participation in the “Manhattan Project” to build the first atomic bomb, is characterized more by a sympathetic disposition than a more critical approach. The biographer is neither a judge nor a professional moralist. It is possible, however, that he was delighted with the work and the scope of his subject’s personality. But he doesn’t mince words in his words. In fact, von Neumann was among the scientists who developed the construction of the atomic bomb, and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki also had his own scientific signature.
According to Bhattacharya, the decision to participate in the project was conscious and reasoned. Von Neumann cynically believed in the deterrent power of nuclear weapons. “His personal experiences of him in Bela Kuhn’s Hungary and what he had seen in Nazi Germany instilled in him a real horror of totalitarian dictatorships,” writes the British author. In any case, “he himself was fully aware of the various ways in which his work could ultimately contribute to the destruction of humanity.”
“His greatest love was his own thought”
As a writer of popular science books, Bhattacharya spends a lot of words trying to make von Neumann’s research understandable, so the result will alienate readers who aren’t interested in becoming more familiar with the work of the mathematical genius. The most demanding reader, however, will be satisfied because he will have the opportunity to better understand the origin of the ideas that make up the technological universe of our time. Science and the history of ideas clearly dominate the book.
The biographer has interviewed many people who knew the famous scientist, extracting testimonies and interesting details from them, which together give us a more complete picture of him. “Although he adored my mother very much,” his daughter Marina confessed to the biographer, “his greatest love was his own thinking, an occupation to which he devoted most of his time and, as happens with many geniuses, he seemed to ignore the needs affective of those around him.” Despite all this, von Neumann is described by his friends as always kind, shy and generous. He drove like a public hazard on the grounds of Princeton University and loved the good life and money.
At the end of the biography, the author does not shy away from a small dose of didactics, but it could be read as timely advice from the most appropriate person for the techno-scientific challenges of the present and the future.
“Man from the Future” closes with a reference to an iconic text by von Neumann, published in 1955, titled “Can we survive technology?” There, the scientist emphatically affirms that it is impossible to stop the evolution of ideas. Certainly, there are very positive and useful technological developments, but they carry enormous risks, even existential threats. Safety is relative, and there is no panacea to address the growing problems, says Neumann. To avoid the most catastrophic scenario, our virtual annihilation by technology, all we can do is identify the human qualities that will be absolutely necessary for us from now on: “patience, adaptability, intelligence.” I think we all deserve to listen to this carefully.