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The genius of John von Neumann The man who shaped modern science finally has a biography

Puzzling: Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, left, and Dr John Von Neumann in front of a 'computer'.

Puzzling: Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, left, and Dr John Von Neumann in front of a 'computer'.


November 16, 2021   7 mins

In 1956, shortly before his early death from bone cancer, John von Neumann received a letter from Kurt Gödel, the Austrian logician. After a paragraph of half-hearted inquiries into von Neumann’s health, Gödel finally got to the point: he had found an interesting new mathematical puzzle. And in the Fifties, if you found an interesting new mathematical puzzle, you sent it to John von Neumann.

The puzzle that Gödel was describing would come to be known as P vs NP. To oversimplify, it asks: can every mathematical question which can be checked quickly also be solved quickly? For instance: you are given a half-complete Sudoku puzzle. Is there a legal solution? If someone were to show you a solution, you could quickly verify whether it was legal. If you used a larger grid, the solution would take longer to check, but not exponentially so1.

But establishing that there is a legal solution is much slower. There might be quintillions of possible ways of filling it out; the number grows exponentially with the size of the grid. Checking them all one by one might take millions of years even on a powerful computer, if the grid is large enough.

What Gödel wanted to know was: is there some algorithm that could solve the Sudoku (or similar problems) as quickly as we could check a solution? P vs NP is one of the great outstanding questions of mathematics: it has profound implications, but no one has been able to prove it, one way or the other.

The Man from the Future, Ananyo Bhattacharya’s fascinating, fast-moving intellectual biography of von Neumann, made me think of P vs NP. Not because von Neumann solved it; but because von Neumann, in Bhattacharya’s telling, provided solutions to many other previously unsolved problems, in dozens of different fields; others simply had to check them, and expand on them. There is, I think, some discomfort about calling people “geniuses” these days, or in admitting that intelligence is a real thing or that it shapes history – but von Neumann was a genius, and his extraordinary intelligence shaped the modern world.

He was not an economist, but he developed the use of fixed-point theorems in economics in a paper which the historian Roy Weintraub calls “the single most important article in mathematical economics”, and which inspired “half a dozen” Nobel laureates.

His work on game theory – he invented the field, and coined the term “zero-sum game” – inspired at least half a dozen more. Game theory also transformed the study of evolution, inspiring the work of Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, and Richard Dawkins.

He developed utility theory, the basis of modern economics. In 2011 Daniel Kahneman, another economics Nobel laureate (who won his Nobel partly for building on von Neumann’s game-theory ideas), called it“ the most important theory in the social sciences”.

Some of his last work, with Stanislaw Ulam on “cellular automata” – grids of squares that turn on and off according to simple rules – shaped modern computer science in thousands of ways, notably inspiring John McCarthy, who would go on to coin the term “artificial intelligence”.

Von Neumann’s genius was apparent early. In 1915, at the age of 11, he had gone to the famous gymnasium school in his native Budapest; the “legendary” maths teacher, LĂĄszlĂł RĂĄtz, immediately realised that von Neumann was beyond his ability to teach, and sent him for extra tuition at the local university. There he was mentored by GĂĄbor Szegö, later head of Stanford’s maths department, who was “moved to tears” by his brilliance.

At 17, still at high school, he partly rescued Cantor’s set theory, the basis of much mathematical theory, from a crippling paradox. A couple of years later, he helped reconcile Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger’s rival models of quantum mechanics. In the early Thirties, he met the astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and worked with him on general relativity and the behaviour of stellar clusters. Chandrasekhar would later tell an interviewer, “If I say, ‘He reminds me of von Neumann,’ that’s about the best compliment I can give anyone.”

Von Neumann read some Alan Turing research which imagined a hypothetical computing machine, and saw how to build a working computer. The paper he produced building on Turing’s ideas is considered “the birth certificate of modern computers”, according to the computer scientist Wolfgang Coy. With his wife KlĂ€ri, and Ulam, he pioneered Monte Carlo simulations, vital now in climate modelling and a million other fields.

In almost every sphere of scientific inquiry – physics, biology, maths, economics, the social sciences, computing – you find von Neumann’s fingerprints. There is a Wikipedia page of “List of things named after John von Neumann.” Were it not for him, our understanding of the world would be decades behind where it is.

What created this genius? Bhattacharya does not speculate a great deal, but there are things worth considering. First, simple genetics: his family was high-achieving. His father was a doctor of law and an economic adviser to the Hungarian government; his uneducated maternal grandfather apparently could “add or multiply numbers into the millions” in his head instantly, a trick von Neumann emulated. The family was “puzzled” by their son’s inability to play the piano properly at the age of five, suggesting rather higher expectations than most. But it turned out to be because he “had taken to propping up books on his music stand so he could read while ‘practising’”.

He also grew up in a fertile environment. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Budapest Jewish community of which he was part produced an astonishing number of great thinkers. Near-contemporaries included Dennis Gabor, “who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1971 for inventing the hologram”; Theodore von Kármán, after whom the “Kármán line” is named, denoting the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space; and Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Leo Szilard, three of the greatest minds behind the Manhattan Project. The atomic bomb has been described as a “Hungarian high school science fair project”.

The Hungarians who worked on America’s atomic weapons programme in the Thirties and Forties were known as “the Martians” by the other physicists – the joke being that the only way of explaining them was that super-intelligent aliens must have come to Budapest in the late 19th century and had babies with the locals. Von Neumann was the most alien of the lot.

But there was some accident of history that meant that European university departments at that time were disproportionately Jewish, and Belle Epoque Budapest, which was going through a less than usually antisemitic period, had a large and well-integrated Jewish population. Von Neumann himself speculated that insecurity drove this Jewish success – they recognised that Hungary’s tolerance might evaporate at any moment, and that they faced “the necessity to produce the unusual or face extinction”.

The tolerance did evaporate, in Hungary and elsewhere. Von Neumann, along with Teller, Wigner and the rest, had already left for Princeton, but Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany devastated their universities: 15% of physicists and 19% of mathematicians were dismissed, including 20 who had won or would win Nobel prizes.

Ironically, this may have lost Germany the war: analysis suggests that the loss of Jewish scientists damaged German science for decades. Werner Heisenberg, a German quantum physicist, was branded a “white Jew” for believing in Einstein’s theories, despite being a nationalist. He later said that it was not worth Germany pursuing nuclear weapons, because they wouldn’t be ready in time to affect the war: he believed this because he thought Germany’s nuclear research was well ahead of other nations. “As it was,” says Bhattacharya. “Until 1933.”

So von Neumann, along with Wigner and others, ended up in Princeton — and then at the next-door Institute for Advanced Study, a sort of intellectual all-star team, where great brains were enticed from around the world with vast salaries, no undergrads to teach, and the promise that they could just think big thoughts. Einstein was there, along with Gödel, Robert Oppenheimer, Freeman Dyson, Ulam, and a host of others. It was an environment made for a certain kind of hard-to-pigeonhole genius, able to wander from subject to subject simply by walking around campus, surrounded by brilliant weirdos.

Von Neumann is compelling evidence, I think, that individual genius is important and influential. Yes, he worked in a series of collaborations; yes, he built on the work of others. But he seems to have pushed on, or sometimes simply created, entire subfields of science, into areas that no one else realised could exist. The economist Oskar Morgernstern remembers him rapidly devising utility theory, immediately overturning economic orthodoxy: “But didn’t anyone see that?”, von Neumann asked.

It’s fashionable to say that intelligence isn’t real, or that we can’t define it, or that it’s a Western colonial construct. But the word points to a real thing: there is some quality which rocks don’t have, and which mice have a bit of, and which chimpanzees have more of, and humans have a lot of; and which is something like problem-solving ability or ability to achieve goals. Calling it intelligence seems as good as anything. It is this ability which has allowed humanity to shape the world, and it is this ability that some people – von Neumann among them – seem to have in unusually large measure.

Via scientific and technological progress, intelligence has made human life better. But in itself, intelligence is morally neutral: it can serve any end, good or ill, to which it is put. Von Neumann is a case in point. He developed computers partly to better predict the behaviour of explosive shockwaves and ballistic shells; he designed two different kinds of nuclear weapon, including the plutonium implosion bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki; his game-theoretic ideas led him to suggest using atom bombs in a first strike on Russia, and he was part of the inspiration for Doctor Strangelove. He believed that all this was in the interest of America, his adopted country, and no doubt of humanity; but not everyone would agree with him. First and foremost he wanted to solve puzzles.

I put the book down wondering if it is still possible to encourage and harness genius. Perhaps it’s as simple as putting lots of clever people together and letting them think weird thoughts — and Von Neumann and his colleagues were often weird people. Or perhaps it is a true accident, and the only lesson is randomness. Perhaps the proposed new field of research into “progress studies” will yield some ideas as to how to recreate that environment in which Von Neumann and his fellow weirdos flourished.

I wondered, too, if John von Neumann was well enough to understand the P vs NP puzzle when he received that letter from Gödel. For it is a wonderful metaphor for genius. I can dimly understand, for instance, Turing’s solution to the “Halting Problem”, or Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, or Russell’s set paradox that undermined mathematics. (They’re all based on the “liar paradox” – the statement “this statement is a lie”, which is false if true or true if false.) But it often takes no great brilliance to understand an idea once it has been brought forth: checking the Sudoku solution is relatively straightforward. Finding that idea in the space of possible ideas, though — solving the great sprawling Sudokus of science and maths, as Von Neumann did time and again, that takes genius.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  In fact the length of time would grow polynomially – hence P.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

The question of genius and its origins is fascinating. In discussing the physicist Richard Feynman, Hans Bethe, another nobel winning physicist, said there are two kinds of geniuses. There are ordinary geniuses such as Enrico Fermi (who also worked on the development of the atomic bomb). According to Bethe, it was possible to understand exactly what Fermi did and how he did it and conclude that if you were ten times smarter you’d be Fermi. On the other hand, some geniuses were magicians. Their thought processes were not entirely logical; their minds worked according to an internal set of rules and they produced results by means the average person simply couldn’t follow. Feynman was the great example of the magician genius.
Then there’s the question of why we seem to have so few true geniuses today. There appeared to be plenty at the turn of the twentieth century when Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, etc worked out relativity and quantum mechanics. Later came people such as Von Neumann, Teller, and Feynman. What’s happened since? Names you see bandied around today as leaders in math and physics are John Horton Conway and Terence Tao, but although they’re exceptional intellects they don’t seem to be making the huge breakthroughs of people a couple of generations ago.
So I suppose the other part of the equation is the availability of major, solvable problems. Relativity and quantum mechanics would fall into those categories in an earlier era, as would establishing the theoretical foundations of computing. But perhaps we’ve run out of big, solvable problems; we might be reaching the limits of human intelligence and our modern geniuses must content themselves with dotting i’s and crossing t’s.
Twenty years ago, the evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould addressed the question of why there weren’t any 400-hitters in baseball anymore? His answer was that the sport had advanced so much, and selection of players was now so rigorous, that the average ability of baseball players was greater and the variability among the pool of top players much less. In other words, it’s harder to stand out as a ‘genius’ in baseball. The same must surely be true in math and science since selection for entry into elite undergraduate programs in now hyper-intense. So why aren’t these highly selected and educated young people significantly advancing the work of Von Neumann and his like? I guess the big, outstanding problems are just too hard. Now if you stand on the shoulders of giants you barely see over the top of the nearest hedge.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Bryant
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Reading the mathematician G. H. Hardy’s descriptions of his charge and later friend Ramanujan with whom they collaborated in the early 20th century one gets a sense of ‘magicial’ genius with him. He rarely proved or wrote his findings in a rigorous way but the ideas he produced are being mined by mathematicians to this day.

A part of me wonders if these kind of people are entirely turned off by the modern, commercialise, “safe” and overpopulated academic environment.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
David B
David B
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I wonder if the way that science is conducted these days – collaborative, grant-chasing, political, etc. – undermines the activity and development of these types of singular genius minds.

It was said of Max Perutz that all he needed for the flourishing of the best science was “No politics, no committees, no reports, no referees, no interviews – just highly motivated people picked by a few men of good judgment.” There is practically no chance of this type of research environment being tolerated today, and the knock-on effects of the administrative bloat at lower levels of science has further inhibited such unique scientists and science.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  David B

Yes, I was thinking along these lines.

At the start of my Electronics career, my boss would let me pursue ideas of my own between real projects. Sometimes, these led to products that brought in many millions of pounds in the 1980s.

Now every little piece of work has to be costed and accounted for

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

I believe in this approach; In my business I let people indulge their outlier ideas, often waving through 5/6-figure spends on stuff of uncertain outcome because it only takes one or two to come off to work. It’s not irresponsible, I expect rigorous thinking and ideas to be argued for of course and for ventures to fit the strategic aims but that’s obviously
It also means an environment gets created that people with some creativity and interest enjoy.
I don’t even think this is all that smart, I watch bemused at places where as you say it’s all run by tedious, unimaginative middle managers on short term imperatives.

Keith Johnson
Keith Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

Nowadays the brightest minds are fenced in by dullards who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Accountants and administrators set the boundaries of innovation, which is further stifled by lawyers who profit from the currency of fear. Even within tech giants like Apple and Google, who like to think they are on the leading edge, true genius cannot flourish in an atmosphere of woke sensibilities driven by virtue-signallers obsessed with the need to avoid offending anyone.
We seem to have reached a turning point, where even the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution which gave birth to the modern era are to be deprecated by those who think freedom of thought needs to be reined in. The demise of genius is only the start of it – at this rate we’ll soon be heading back to the Dark Ages.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  David B

Yes – science is only collaborative over the long dureĂš as one great mind builds on the work of the other. Newton built grander structures of calculus on the foundations of Archimedes’, Fermat’s, Cavalieri’s and Descartes’ work only because they were dead. In the short term competition is the dynamic to be encouraged – think Newton and Leibniz/Hooke, Bohr vs Schrodinger, Einstein vs Hilbert and innumerable other examples.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You’re right: for example although there have been plenty of big applied engineering advances, there have been no major fundamental breakthroughs in Computing Theory (which is just a branch of mathematics) since the ’60s. Ditto in Electronics. And as a long term Comp Sci and Electronics professional who has seen the numbers of people working in my professions increase by orders of magnitude over four decades, it poses a number of questions over the years for which I have no satisfactory answers.

It seems the ‘numbers game’ doesn’t quite work – or at least not in a way that is a straightforward extrapolation of the numbers working in a field. You would expect, as education levels rose, and more and more people came into Computing worldwide, into the sciences in general, that there would increasing numbers of fundamental breakthroughs. But that has not proved to be the case, and the question is, why?

What is observable through history is that you get ‘clumps’ of talent, some of which is super high-end, surrounded by mostly barren periods, and it doesn’t seem to be a function of population density, rather some undefinable, transitory, quality of a society at a point in time. These ‘clumps’ last anywhere from a few decades to a few centuries. We had the extraordinary stream of Greek thinkers in antiquity (when the global population was tiny and the numbers of highly educated people even tinier) over a few centuries, but then the Greeks have produced no one of that quality for nigh on two millenia since. We had the oddly named ‘Renaissance’ the incredible ‘clump’ of talent over a couple of centuries in and around the Italian city states. The ‘Martians’ and the ‘Vienna Circle’, just as Europe decided to embark on a couple of massive self-destructive and self-impoverishing wars. And thru to the simultaneously resented and admired success and sheer volume of extraordinary souls produced by that dratted little sceptred isle over odd four centuries of course, there have existed these flowerings in the desert.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

the numbers of people working in my professions increase by orders of magnitude over four decades

Is this because, in any field of science that thinks it’s “settled”, there’s a structural propensity to groupthink, an intolerance of different opinions that simply look like thoughtcrime, and a tendency towards admitting only people who won’t challenge the dogma, rather than those who will?

Michael Richardson
Michael Richardson
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

there have been no major fundamental breakthroughs in Computing Theory (which is just a branch of mathematics) since the ’60s

I’d suggest that cryptography is one field where there has been a fundamental breakthrough, namely Public Key Encryption. And related to that, the Bitcoin blockchain implementation, which is effectively a solution to the Byzantine Generals Problem.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

That is engineering. There have been no basic new theorems and proofs coming out, which is what I am looking for.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
David Fellowes
David Fellowes
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I can tell you from decades of experience that the evolutionary equivalent of the ‘environment’ in corporations is the approval structure. It’s like diagnosis in medicine, absolutely crucial to survival, but usually delegated to middle management or some over-tired intern in Emergency.
I remember when we were developing the Internet, we replaced the approval structure with a day’s rehearsal for Senior Management before the Press Launch (“Was it always going to be blue?”, “It looks very small; I’m sure it was bigger in the pictures”, “What is a “Terror Bite?”), and things went swimmingly, as you know. Later on, the people involved had to actually understand, which killed everything.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s an interesting point. Science 100 years ago was extraordinary individuals thinking outside the box, and advancing it. Science today is mediocre groupthinkers policing dissent and retarding it, climate science being the obvious example.
In the West, we have clearly forgotten how to invent and discover things. Whoever built these – China presumably – clearly has not.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

“…the Budapest Jewish community of which he was part produced an astonishing number of great thinkers…”

The Austro-Hungarian empire on its deathbed produced a short-lived but utterly extraordinary flowering of talent, of which von Neumann was the pinnacle. And pretty much all of that talent empowered (immeasurably), not Germany, not the UK, not the rest of Europe, but… the USA. A hidden dynamic of the 20th century, which remains to this day unacknowledged.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Because Europe squandered its gifts to the New World, in multiple ways.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

there is some quality which rocks don’t have, and which mice have a bit of, and which chimpanzees have more of, and humans have a lot of; and which is something like problem-solving ability or ability to achieve goals. Calling it intelligence seems as good as anything.

Tom is going to get cancelled at some point. I don’t know exactly when, but at some point, he’ll go too far with this stuff.
The problem, Tom, is that if this “some quality” is real, you can measure it; and if you can measure it, you can study it; and if you do, you conclude that there are differences between the sexes and races that recur however you measure it, including when you control for social and other potentially influencing factors.
And that is not allowed. It is simply not acceptable to suggest that there are more male CEOs than female because of “some quality” found more often in men than women. It is not acceptable to note that black people are on average poorer than white because on average they lack “some quality” compared to whites. You can be Francis Crick and still not be allowed to say that. You cannot say that. You cannot say that.
ï»żEducate yourself. Police yourself. Censor yourself.
Science and knowledge now operate within politically-defined bounds in the same way they do in theocracies. There are no gays in Iran and von Neumann is just a dead white-adjacent male. “His truth” is of no special value.
Otherwise, Tom, we will have to conclude that oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc. And you know what that means.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I think that you are correct that if something exists it is theoretically possible to measure it. The problem appears to be how do we measure it whilst normalising for cultural and educational factors. I do have a sneaking suspicion that people of Chinese and J*w”sh (Iast time I wrote the whole word my post was removed) ancestry are more intelligent than Europeans, but I don’t know and I can’t prove it, so it could just be rubbish that I’m believing with no basis in fact.

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

It’s quite well authenticated, but it is politically unacceptable to acknowledge it. Correspondingly, there are also ethnicities that are less intelligent, which you’re not allowed to say. Tom would certainly be a denier.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

Statistically it would not be at all surprising that a relatively small and homogeneous ethnic group such as the Ashkenazi Js would deviate from the average in some quality such as intelligence. The number of Nobel prizes and great musicians suggests the deviation in this case is to favour high intelligence. Equally there probably are small ethnic groups that deviate from the average in the opposite direction.
I would be sceptical that there is a great deviation from the average in those possessing a darker skin and originating from Africa simply because Africans are not a small ethnically homogeneous group but a large ethnically diverse group. Statistically as a group they are likely to tend to the world average, although statistically it is not unlikely that there may be small ethnically homogeneous groups amongst them that deviate from the norm.
The problem of approaching the subject in any popular forum is the absurd tendency among the woke to divide humanity into undifferentiated black and white races.

Richard Doehring
Richard Doehring
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I recall back in the 1960s in South Africa (yes, I am old enough) hearing that the education authorities (Christian National Education of the Apartheid government) had applied IQ tests to various ethnic groups, culturally and linguistically biased of course, and had been greatly confused and embarrassed to find that the group that outperformed all others was the San (bushmen). Presumably the hunter-gatherer lifestyle maintains selective pressure for the maintenance of intelligence which has been lost from pastoral, agricultural and, above all, post-industrial populations.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Now in the interest of ‘Equity’ we must….

But it is an amazing read, humbling when one sees that we cannot even understand the questions, and the answers are beyond our ability so completely…ï»ż
Yet to these exceptional people it is a delightful game they are fully at home in….

Last edited 2 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

Are you literally unaware of the population IQ of Ashkenazi Jews compared to the rest of Europe/USA? Or of the effects this has on the thickness of the tails in the distribution of intelligence?
Are you unaware of dysgenic breeding, whereby the more intelligent have been having fewer children than the less for a century and more? (Given how much IQ is a heritable trait.)
Have you considered the effects on population intelligence of reduced infant mortality, given the correlation of physical health with IQ?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

It is well past time that Von Neumann was recognised, his work is foundational in many fields, although I’m most familiar with his work on explosive lenses.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

“…there is some quality which rocks don’t have, and which mice have a bit of, and which chimpanzees have more of, and humans have a lot of…”

One word for that quality is Sentience. And as that sentence alludes, Sentience is a dimmer switch, not an on-off switch. This has a disturbing (to some) implication: that there will be entities with greater levels of Sentience than humans. And unless them aliens turn up first in their fancy UFOs, I think it is we humans who will create them. There are mechanisms missing of course (for want of a better word, because what is missing might not turn out be mechanistic, or to be more precise, algorithmic) but I don’t believe these are going to be anything beyond the ambit of mathematics and physics and biotechnology. Indeed everything now indicates to me these missing mechanisms are going to turn out to be algorithmic in nature (which means deterministic – killing all notion of free will) – although this is by no means a given.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
2 years ago

For a few decades the US universities were an intellectually welcoming place for geniuses. Today with cancel culture and microaggressions and political correctness and CRT and affirmative action and the abandonment of entry exams, less so.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Roman
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Thank you, Tom Chivers, my kinda article, although the phrase “…von Neumann was a genius…” doesn’t remotely do him justice. To paraphrase Kung Fu Panda, von Neumann wasn’t *A* Genius, he was *The* Genius. I cannot think of a single polymath through history at the same level, not Newton, not Euler, not Einstein. Will post more responses in a while.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Leonardo da Vinci?

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Good point Jon, there have been a few of them over the eons

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Well these things are personal opinion of course, but for me, no, not even close. John von Neumann was in a league of his own, completely peerless.

I started my Computer Science and Cybernetics degree in ’79, and although I knew the phrase ‘von Neumann architecture’ I didn’t know who he was until I came across a book by Marvin Minsky about Turing Machines, called ‘Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines’ in 1980 (strongly recommended if you are into finite state automata btw). The more I discovered about his work over the years, the more astonished I became that he was pretty much completely unknown to the general public – even now I can speak to IT people who have only the sketchiest idea about his achievements. And the reason is now obvious to me after all these years – what he has to say is one or more levels of complexity beyond most people, so they ignore him as though he didn’t exist.

It all kind of fed my scepticism over the years about writers on current affairs mags etc, that most of these people in truth know diddly-squat. I *never* take at face value anything I read on the MSM as I *know* they don’t have a clue who actually made their world – they all think it was a bunch of leaders and politicians.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Paul Dirac died in 1984. He has a plaque in Westminster Abbey. I have seen one poll amongst scientists that puts him at the very top of the list, ahead of Newton and Einstein, yet how many people outside of physics have heard of him.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

I agree, Dirac produced a lot extraordinary work, on a par in physics with Turing in mathematics.

Keith Johnson
Keith Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

There is nothing more crass than seeing MSM journalists rubbishing the work of serious scientists, asking inane questions or introducing some crackpot clown for the sake of “balance” because they don’t understand the work themselves and don’t appreciate the concept of false equivalence.