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December 28: The Polymath

December 28, 2014

john-von-neumannJohn von Neumann (Neumann János Lajos), a mathematician, physicist, and inventor who made major contributions to many mathematical disciplines, quantum physics, game theory, computing, nuclear weaponry, and several other fields, was born in Budapest on this date in 1903. His father, a banker, was granted a title by Emperor Franz Josef in 1913. Von Neumann was a notable child prodigy in mathematics, language, and memory, and became the youngest faculty member in the history of the University of Berlin in 1926. By the end of the following year, he had published twelve major mathematics papers, which grew to thirty-two by the end of 1929. In 1930, he was invited to Princeton, where he was eventually offered a position on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study. He remained there until his death in 1957. Von Neumann was widely viewed as a towering intellect with a phenomenally retentive memory. He made key contributions to the Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb and oversaw computations related to the selection and bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as target cities. Unlike J. Robert Oppenheimer and numerous other Manhattan Project scientists, Jewish and non-Jewish, von Neumann suffered no qualms about the atomic bomb and worked closely with Edward Teller to produce the H-bomb. It was he who developed the Cold War strategy of mutually assured destruction, known as MAD. It is likely that his death from cancer at age 54 was caused by his witnessing of the first atomic bomb explosions on the Bikini Atoll. A crater on the moon is named for him.

“One of his remarkable abilities was his power of absolute recall. As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how The Tale of Two Cities started. Whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes.” —Herman Goldstine