Audio-book Review
 By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)

The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

By: Ananyo Bhattacharya

Narrated by: Nicholas Camn

Ananyo Bhattacharya (Author, science writer based in London, PhD in biophysics from Imperial College London.)

Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, engineer and polymath.

Another alumnus of the golden era of education in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the early 20th century is John von Neumann. Ananyo Bhattacharya’s biography recounts Neumann’s giant contribution to mathematics in WWII explosives analysis, atom bomb design, computer functionality, and game theory. Von Neumann is formally educated as a chemist and mathematician.

In von Neuman’s early career, before the war and while still in school (1923), wrote a published paper titled “The Introduction of Transfinite Ordinals”.

The “…Transfinite Ordinals” paper introduces the now commonly defined understanding that an ordinal number is the set of all smaller ordinal numbers. To mathematicians, this concept simplified the concept of transfinite numbers. Von Neumann’s genius is in his uncanny ability to simplify complexity.

A further example of von Neuman’s genius is in a theoretical reconciliation of Erwin Schrodinger’s and Werner Heisenberg’s differing views on quantum mechanics. Von Neuman theorized “hidden variables” could not resolve the reality of indeterminacy of quantum phenomena. (Von Neumann disagreed with Einstein who believed determinacy is only a matter of not having found “hidden variables” in quantum phenomena.)

(Von Neumann disagreed with Einstein who believed determinacy is only a matter of not having found “hidden variables” in quantum phenomena.)

John Stewart Bell backhandedly affirms von Neumann’s conclusion by finding “hidden variables” are unnecessary in proving indeterminacy of quantum phenomena making the difference between Schrodinger’s and Heisenberg’s views moot.

John Stewart Bell FRS (28 July 1928 – 1 October 1990) was a physicist from Northern Ireland and the originator of Bell’s theorem, an important theorem in quantum physics regarding hidden-variable theories. 

Bhattacharya notes von Neumann is asked to lecture at Princeton in 1929. He is appointed as a visiting professor (1930 to 1933) and marries Mariette Koevesi in 1930. The marriage ends in 1937 with one daughter who becomes an economist.

Von Neuman remarries in 1938 to Klára Dán who became a coder for Eniac during WWII.

In 1933, the same year Hitler rises to power in Germany, von Neumann became one of the first professors at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). One of his famous colleagues is Albert Einstein.

After the beginning of WWII, Bhattacharya notes von Neumann becomes a member of the “Manhattan Project” when contacted by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Because of von Neumann’s help with the British on the physics of shock waves and chemical explosives, Oppenheimer asked von Neumann to analyze the structure and altitude requirements of an atom bomb. Bhattacharya explains the atom bomb is an implosion device that is layered in different metals that have chemical reactions that emit neutrons toward the center of fissionable uranium which is meant to create an explosive chain reaction. The height of the explosion has an effect on the area of damage. Von Neumann’s experience and education are a perfect fit for that analysis. The rest is the history of war’s destruction and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

The consequences of the zero-sum game theory of war.

After the war, von Neumann becomes a government and industry consultant. He was acquainted with Alan Turing and viewed the computer as a critical part of the world’s future. His experience with ENIAC made him understand its potential but, at the same time, its design limitations. Von Neuman simplified computer processing by creating the idea of a stored-program computer that led to a cache system of data retrieval that reduces the time it takes to get a computed answer. Von Neumann’s idea turns ENIAC into a library of information rather than a processor. Here is where patent issues are raised by two fellow developers named Eckert and Mauchly. They were working on the same design idea as von Neumann.

J. Presper Eckert and Alfred Eisenstaedt believe they were the first to originate stored-program computers.

Bhattacharya argues von Neumann deserves the credit but Eckert and Mauchly feel they were the true originators of a stored-program computer patent. Some would agree with Eckert and Mauchly. An earlier collaboration between Alan Turing and von Neumann is the basis for Bhattacharya’s belief in von Neumann’s origination.

Von Neuman is recruited in 1948 to work on military doctrine to be used in the event of a conflict between countries. A rather astounding conclusion from von Neuman’s game theory is to use the American nuclear arsenal to eliminate Russia because he felt Russia was an imminent threat to peace. He is alleged to have said “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?” This became moot when von Neuman found Russia had their own nuclear weapons and would be able to retaliate.

Bhattacharya summarizes von Neumann’s game theory beliefs. Game theory applies mathematics to analyze how decisions are made by people competing to win.

In 1954, von Neumann is appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission but within a year he is diagnosed with bone cancer. One wonders if von Neumann’s exposure to radioactive fallout from the atomic tests he witnessed on the Bikini atoll.

The last chapters of Bhattacharya’s book are terrifying. Nearing death, von Neumann speculates on the valuable discovery of the structure of DNA and suggests it is the missing link for the future of cellular level replication of artificial intelligence.

Bhattacharya reveals the two-dimensional creations of computer game theorists that focus on a replicating code that simulates creation of life. This is a fear that some scientists suggest will create an alternative form of life that will compete with human existence.

A listener who understands life comes from the evolution of DNA over centuries and has resulted in the strengths and weaknesses of who we are today, thinks machine coding that does the same may create a competitor to life as we know it. This is the essence of the concern some scientists have about the growth of artificial intelligence.

Bhattacharya biography of John von Neumann being “The Man from the Future” rings loud and clear. It reminds one of Oppenheimer’s quotes from the Bhagavad Ghita after the first test of the atom bomb–“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Author: chet8757

Graduate Oregon State University and Northern Illinois University, Former City Manager, Corporate Vice President, General Contractor, Non-Profit Project Manager, occasional free lance writer and photographer for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

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