Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

John von Neumann: Hungarian...Martian?

The world is filled with stories of alien spaceships sighted, and if one looks one can easily find that some people believe that the aliens - wherever on Earth they landed - got out of their ships and mixed in with the humans. They are among us, even now.

I have always loved the variations on those stories, never believing any of them.

During the time of the Manhattan Project, there was an ongoing joke that the Hungarians (Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and a few others) were so smart they must be "Martians" and they were speaking Hungarian as a cover. The smartest Hungarian of them all - maybe the smartest mathematical-scientific-freakish mind of the 20th century - was, for my money, John von Neumann. Even if you don't read the long Wikipedia link there, just have a glance at the right hand column, under "known for." See what I mean?

                                              Martian von Neumann, in 1945. Notice how his 
                                                              eyes seem to look straight into your own brain.
                                                              Can he read your mind, from wherever he is now?

Born in Budapest in 1903 to an upper-middle-class Jewish family, he was able to exchange jokes in classical Greek at age six. At that same age he could memorize telephone directories on sight and could divide two eight-digit numbers in his head, almost instantaneously, down to a decimal. He mastered calculus by age eight. His family, like most Jewish families in Budapest at that time, highly valued education and culture. When John's father bought an entire library from an estate they rebuilt a large room in their house to accommodate it, and John read the entire 44-volume universal history series in German and memorized it as a boy, and had retained total recall at the end of his life. He had a photographic memory, and anyone can do research on von Neumann and come upon some anecdote that is freakish, astonishing, and frankly, sorta "Martian." A colleague asked if John knew the first words of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. One wonders what the colleague was looking for, as JvN's memory was legendary. Most of us would reply, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times," and be satisfied. John had to be stopped after 15 minutes.

A professor of history whose expertise was in the Byzantine empire, said that when he talked to JvN he realized JvN knew more about the subject than he did. How disconcerting...JvN tried to guard against this sort of thing - hurting people's feelings because he was so freakishly smart - but he was bound to fail every now and then.

The great Hungarian mathematician George Polya said, "Johnny was the only student I was ever afraid of. If in the course of the lecture I stated an unsolved problem, he'd come to me at the end of the lecture with the complete solution scribbled on a slip of paper." When JvN was teaching math at Princeton, he was not very good, because he'd talk so fast, demonstrate the math on the chalkboard, then quickly erase the equations before anyone had a chance to copy them. (He was probably bored? Absent-minded?)

The great physicist Hans Bethe, keeping with the Martian theme, said of von Neumann, "I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann's does not indicate a species superior to that of man."

He earned a PhD in math from the University at Budapest at age 22, and there is very little evidence he ever studied. At the same time he earned a degree in chemistry from Zurich. He eventually made major contributions to mathematics in the fields of set theory, functional analysis, geometry/lattice theory, and there are now "von Neumann algebras." (Please don't ask for elaboration; I am no Martian!) JvN also helped revolutionize ergotic theory, underwrote the logic of quantum mechanics, and was a primary mover in the first atom bombs and other weapons for the US.

He made a signal contribution to economics: game theory, which has been used widely in other areas, including biology, logic (Prisoner's Dilemma), whether to cheat on your income tax, whether to donate to PBS if one watches it, the behavior of the stickleback fish, whether to believe the world is populated by cooperators or defectors, and how to conduct a Cold War under nuclear weapons. (Von Neumann, being persecuted as a child for his Jewishness and being exposed to authoritarianism, then seeing the rise of fascism in Germany, was a right-winger and favored a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviets ASAP. How odd that his Game Theory would lead, as he later came to understand, Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, a term JvN allegedly coined.)

He also invented a computer that he called the "Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer," or MANIAC.

In the 1950s JvN told the US Senate he was violently anti-communist and much more militaristic than the norm.

Oh, and he designed the basic architecture for computers. I've heard academic philosophers to this day refer to any computing machine as a "von Neumann machine." In the 1940s he invented cellular automata theory, the theory of self-replicating machines. He analyzed the function of self-replication using pen and paper and seemed to prefigure the digital-mechanical structure of the DNA double helix, ten years before Watson and Crick. JvN theorized that the best way to mine an asteroid was to create self-replicating machines. I feel compelled to reiterate that he thought of this idea, and sketched out how it must work...in the 1940s!

Von Neumann loved the US. He saw a practicality of thought, a bulwark for a free world against authoritarian communism and Nazism and other fascisms, and the US as a country that would allow him to maximize his intellectual capabilities. In 1930, when the Institute of Advanced Studies opened near Princeton, the first three geniuses invited to be paid for life and think on anything they wished, were Einstein, Godel, and von Neumann. He and his wife owned the biggest house on the block in the neighborhood near Princeton, and loved to have long parties, sometimes two per week. He was a dapper dresser and once wore a three-piece pinstripe suit on a ride down into the Grand Canyon. Before emigrating to the US, he enjoyed Berlin's 1920s cabaret night life, and was a prodigious drinker of scotch...and could still do amazing arithmetical feats even when drunk. (Or he should have been drunk: he drank tumblers of scotch and never really appeared to be drunk!)  He loved off-color humor, Yiddish, and had what's been described as an Eastern European sense of humor. An example: A convict was playing cards with his jailers and when they found the convict was cheating, they kicked him out.

The virtuoso mathematician Stanislaw Ulam was friends with JvN, and they shared many in-jokes, my favorite being the one about asparagus. Asparagus was a delicacy in 1920s Berlin, and a man in a communal boarding house was eating more than his fair share. Finally, another boarder pointed out that others like asparagus too. Ulam and JvN turned this into a plan to write a twenty-volume treatise on "Asparagetics Through the Ages." What's so funny about this? Ulam and JvN had a code word, "asparagus," for anyone who tried "to obtain an unduly large share of credit for scientific work or any other accomplishment of a joint or group character." (p.221, The Martians of Science, Hargittai.) JvN was very open about his ideas, and never understood the rush to patent.

In Princeton circles, once more with the Martian theme, and according to William Poundstone in his book The Prisoner's Dilemma, von Neumann "was not human but a demigod who had made a detailed study of humans and could imitate them perfectly." A fellow Hungarian "Martian," Theodore von Karman, the father of supersonic flight and the US Air Force, claimed he was descended from Rabbi Loew of Prague, who created The Golem. Von Neumann made similar claims for himself.

This Martian died at the age of 53, in 1957, near Princeton, of cancer. As his mind began to falter, he was, by all accounts in terrifying agony, a screaming, uncontrollable terror. As he neared death, sedated, American guards watched his hospital room, wary that the Martian might babble high-level military secrets, but he began to speak in Hungarian, and the guards didn't understand it. His brother was at his side, and John von Neumann, going out of life on this planet, under heavy painkillers, recited Goethe's Faust from his photographic memory...

There is much, much more to be said about John von Neumann, the enigma. The Martian. But it seems unseemly for blog posts to go on too long...And besides, I'm due back on my own planet.

1 comment:

michael said...

I should have included a story or two about how unfathomably BAD a driver John von Neumann was. He was legendary for crashing and totalling a luxury car about once a year. He'd go twice the speed limit the wrong way down a one-way street, other cars swerving out of the way. In an early version of texting while driving, von Neumann liked to read a book while driving!

He had an underling at the Institute for Advanced Studies quietly collect and pay all his tickets as they accrued.

"Honey! There's that weird Hungarian genius careening down the street again!"

"Where are the kids?"

"Out back, playing ball."

"Thank god!"