A man of inconceivable intelligence THE DAILY

A man of inconceivable intelligence THE DAILY

A man of unimaginable intelligence

John von Neumann in front of the computer he built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Although its memory does not exceed 5 kilobytes, everyone agrees that it all started with this machine… Photo. SHELBY WHITE AND LEON LEVY ARCHIVE CENTER / INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED STUDY / ALAN RICHARDS

John von Neumann, the man of the future
trans.: Stavros Panelis
Edited by: Nestoras Hounos
final review: Panagiotis Travlos
ed. Travlos, 2022, p. 544

How to describe a man who founded quantum mechanics, invented a large part of the atomic bomb, built one of the first computers, invented game theory, but also “living” machines, without falling into the trap of idealizing intelligence? From the first pages of John von Neumann’s biography, author Ananio Battazaria is quick to describe the great mathematician as “a man of unimaginable intelligence”. In his very detailed and fascinating book, he substantiates this claim with primary research – and in detail – by following the course of scientific activity of a man of extraordinary intellectual abilities, who indeed seemed to come “from the future”, as notes the biography. whose subtitle was recently published also in Greek by Travlos Publications, translated by Stavros Panelis. Along the way, he does not miss the opportunity to highlight the complex personality of the biographer, but far from being moralistic.

With humor and passion

Von Neumann is presented on a first level as one of us, with his quirks, his passions and his humor. “As a professor at the Institute of Studies at Princeton, a position he held from 1933 until his death in 1957, von Neumann “enjoyed” annoying his famous neighbors, such as Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel, playing German expeditions across the country. in their office gramophone,” writes Bhattacharya. Gradually, however, the narrative begins to take more and more the form of an intellectual adventure story. The breadth of Von Neumann’s thought threatens to eclipse any human dimension. “Einstein sparked a real revolution in the way we understood time, space and gravity”, continues the British biographer, “Goedel, although less famous, had the same effect in the field of mathematical logic However, those who knew all three had no doubt that von Neumann was by far the most brilliant mind among them. In fact, his colleagues joked that von Neumann came from a higher species, but had studied human beings so well that he could imitate them perfectly.”

His colleagues joked that von Neumann came from a higher species, but he could imitate people perfectly.

Von Neumann, or “Johnny”, as he liked to call himself, was born in 1903 in Hungary. He immigrated to America at the age of 27, where he spent the rest of his life, writing a brilliant academic and professional career and a life rich in recognition. His scientific contribution was remarkable in many ways, as von Neumann never rested on his accomplishments. He began by mathematically establishing quantum theory by building “a rock of certainty”, as his biographer so aptly put it, “in the midst of a sea of ​​possibilities”, then moved on to research on explosives and the ballistics, instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb, then explores the creation of the first computers, but also self-replicating machines and, finally, he writes the founding text of game theory. How much can be expected from one mind? Bhattacharya rightly includes him in the chorus of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century.

The Manhattan Project

A man of inconceivable intelligence-1Even the most controversial story of von Neumann’s life, his participation in the “Manhattan Project” to build the first atomic bomb, is characterized more by an understanding disposition than a more critical approach. The biographer is neither a judge nor a professional moralist. It is possible, however, that he was enchanted by the work and the breadth of the personality of his subject. But he doesn’t mince his words. Von Neumann was indeed among the scientists who developed the construction of the atomic bomb, and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki also had its own scientific signature.

According to Bhattacharya, the decision to participate in the project was conscious and reasoned. Von Neumann cynically believed in the deterrent power of nuclear weapons. “His personal experiences of Bela Kuhn’s Hungary and what he had seen in Nazi Germany instilled in him a genuine horror of totalitarian dictatorships,” writes the British author. In any case, “he was himself fully aware of the various ways in which his work could ultimately contribute to the destruction of humanity”.

“His greatest love was his very thought”

As an author of popular science books, Bhattacharya devotes many words to trying to make von Neumann’s research understandable, so the result will alienate readers unwilling to learn more about the genius mathematician’s work. The most demanding reader will however be satisfied because he will have the opportunity to better understand the origin of the ideas that shape the technological universe of our time. Science and the history of ideas clearly predominate in the book.

The biographer interviewed many people who knew the famous scientist, extracting testimonies and interesting details, which together give us a more complete picture of him. “Although he really adored my mother,” his daughter Marina confided to the biographer, “his greatest love was his thought itself, an occupation to which he devoted most of his time and, like many geniuses, he seemed to neglect the emotional needs of those around him.” Despite all this, Von Neumann is described by his friends as always kind, shy and generous. He drove like a public hazard on Princeton University grounds and loved the good life and the money.

In conclusion of the biography, the author does not shy away from a small dose of didacticism, but it could be read as timely advice from the most appropriate person for the technoscientific challenges of the present and the future.

“The Man of the Future” ends with a reference to an iconic text by von Neumann, published in 1955, entitled “Can we survive technology? “. There, the scientist insists that it is impossible to stop the evolution of ideas. There are certainly very positive and useful technological developments, but they come with enormous risks, even existential threats. Security is relative and there is no panacea to solve growing problems, says Neumann. To avoid the most catastrophic scenario, our virtual annihilation by technology, we just need to identify the human qualities that will be essential to us from now on: “patience, adaptability, intelligence”. I think we all deserve to hear this carefully.

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