‘The Man From the Future’ Recounts the Lifetime of a Stressed Genius

‘The Man From the Future’ Recounts the Lifetime of a Stressed Genius

The Visionary Lifetime of John von Neumann
By Ananyo Bhattacharya
Illustrated. 353 pages. W.W. Norton & Firm. $30.

The mathematician John von Neumann was an plain genius whose many accomplishments included a necessary function within the improvement of quantum mechanics, computing and the atom bomb. Because the co-author of one of many first textbooks on sport concept, he took a coolly analytical method to a spread of conditions that included bluffing in poker and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Nonetheless, von Neumann didn’t let his deep understanding of physics and rational utility get in the best way of one thing else that was clearly crucial to him: a love of driving, together with what appeared to be a cheerful dedication to being horrible at it.

After leaving Europe in 1933 for a lifetime of the thoughts on the Institute for Superior Research in Princeton, N.J., von Neumann failed the driving take a look at so many instances that he needed to bribe the examiner to get his license. Yearly he discovered an excuse to purchase a brand new automotive, ideally an infinite Cadillac. “I used to be continuing down the street,” he would begin to say to his incredulous buddies when recalling one other certainly one of his accidents. “The bushes on the correct have been passing me in orderly style at 60 miles an hour. Instantly certainly one of them stepped in my path. Growth!”

That is certainly one of a number of vivid anecdotes recounted in Ananyo Bhattacharya’s “The Man From the Future,” which payments itself as a biography of von Neumann however is extra dedicated to exploring the concepts and technological inquiries he impressed.

“The mathematical contributions von Neumann made within the mid-Twentieth century now seem extra eerily prescient with each passing yr,” Bhattacharya writes, alluding to this guide’s wonderful title. “His pondering is so pertinent to the challenges we face right this moment that it’s tempting to marvel if he was a time traveler, quietly seeding concepts that he knew could be wanted to form the Earth’s future.”

When von Neumann was alive, earlier than the total import of his affect could possibly be gauged, his brilliance marked him not as a time traveler however as an alien — one of many so-called Martians, the nickname for the Hungarian-Jewish emigrés, together with Edward Teller, who labored on the key atom bomb challenge at Los Alamos. Naturally, the intellectually omnivorous von Neumann got here up together with his personal theories in regards to the “Hungarian phenomenon” (the shorthand time period for the scientific accomplishments of von Neumann and his countrymen), deciding that it had one thing to do with the Austro-Hungarian combination of liberalism and feudalism that allowed Jews some avenues for fulfillment whereas protecting them away from the true levers of energy. This provoked “a sense of maximum insecurity,” von Neumann mentioned, making him and his fellow Martians consider that they wanted “to supply the weird or face extinction.”

This was a darkish and introspective evaluation from somebody who might have anticipated World Battle II in Europe however was additionally remembered as “a cheerful man, an optimist who beloved cash and believed firmly in human progress,” within the phrases of certainly one of his lifelong buddies. Bhattacharya, a science journalist who additionally holds a Ph.D. in physics, doesn’t probe too deeply into these obvious contradictions. We get a brisk tour by the primary three a long time of von Neumann’s life — born in Budapest in 1903, he was a mathematical prodigy who lived a largely privileged existence — earlier than we land in Princeton, the place his real-world affect shortly took off.

Credit score…Ok. Rietzler

Von Neumann got here of age when arithmetic wasn’t thought of a “sensible” occupation. He studied chemistry too, as a sop to his father, an funding banker — banking being one other discipline that, afterward, would grow to be in thrall to arithmetic. After arriving in america, von Neumann spent almost 1 / 4 of a century on the Institute for Superior Research, the place his workplace neighbors included Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. From New Jersey von Neumann would journey the nation, instructing and consulting, most consequentially at Los Alamos. Bhattacharya quotes from a report that von Neumann put collectively for the U.S. Navy, detailing how the “angle of incidence” might make a bomb’s detonation extra damaging. The report might have been written for a navy viewers, however von Neumann appears so excited by his personal reasoning that he resorts to exclamation factors.

Bhattacharya exhibits how this unabashedly forthright therapy of “morally fraught issues” earned von Neumann a status for hawkishness, as did his assist for the logic of “preventive conflict.” He advocated taking out the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal with a shock assault (“If you happen to say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not right this moment?”) — a place that he later walked again. But Bhattacharya additionally says that von Neumann, as somebody who was “Central European to the core,” believed that individuals would work collectively for his or her mutual profit, which was embedded in his method to sport concept. So who was he? The hopeful Central European or the hard-nosed chilly warrior?

He was, as Bhattacharya places it, “a posh character,” and there are tantalizing glimmers of such human strangeness and complexity on this guide. However “The Man From the Future” generally appears so targeted on explicating that future — narrating the fates of von Neumann’s concepts gone his dying, from most cancers, in 1957 — that the person himself recedes from view.

The ability with which Bhattacharya teases aside dense scientific ideas left me feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, what we do see of von Neumann hints at such an enchanting character that I wished to know extra; on the opposite, possibly there’s one thing to be mentioned for fixating so intently on the cerebral output of somebody whose daughter as soon as noticed, “My father’s old flame in life was pondering.”

Moreover, von Neumann, ever the stressed pollinator, might have authorised of his biographer’s method: “Busy with so many different issues, he would whizz in, lecture for an hour or two on the hyperlinks between info and entropy or circuits for logical reasoning, then whizz off once more — leaving the bewildered attendees to debate the implications of no matter he had mentioned for the remainder of the afternoon.”