THE MAN FROM THE FUTURE
John von Neumann’s Visionary Life
By Ananyo Bhattacharya
Illustrated. 353 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $30.
John von Neumann, a mathematician and entrepreneur, was an undeniable genius. His many achievements included the development of quantum mechanics and computing. He was the co-author one of the first textbooks in game theory and took a coolly analytical approach when dealing with a variety of situations, including bluffing in poker or the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Still, von Neumann didn’t let his deep understanding of physics and rational utility get in the way of something else that was clearly very important to him: a love of driving, along with what seemed to be a cheerful commitment to being terrible at it.
After leaving Europe in 1933 to pursue a life of the mind at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, N.J., von Neumann failed his driving test so many more times that he had no choice but to bribe the examiner for his license. Every year, he found a reason to buy a new car. “I was proceeding down the road,” he would start to say to his incredulous friends when recalling another one of his accidents. “The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles an hour. One of them suddenly stepped in front of me. Boom!”
This is one of several vivid anecdotes recounted in Ananyo Bhattacharya’s “The Man From the Future,” which bills itself as a biography of von Neumann but is more devoted to exploring the ideas and technological inquiries he inspired.
“The mathematical contributions von Neumann made in the mid-20th century now appear more eerily prescient with every passing year,” Bhattacharya writes, alluding to this book’s excellent title. “His thinking is so pertinent to the challenges we face today that it is tempting to wonder if he was a time traveler, quietly seeding ideas that he knew would be needed to shape the Earth’s future.”
When von Neumann was alive, before the full import of his influence could be gauged, his brilliance marked him not as a time traveler but as an alien — one of the so-called Martians, the nickname for the Hungarian-Jewish emigrés, including Edward Teller, who worked on the secret atom bomb project at Los Alamos. Naturally, the intellectually omnivorous von Neumann came up with his own theories about the “Hungarian phenomenon” (the shorthand term for the scientific accomplishments of von Neumann and his countrymen), deciding that it had something to do with the Austro-Hungarian mixture of liberalism and feudalism that allowed Jews some avenues for success while keeping them away from the true levers of power. This provoked “a feeling of extreme insecurity,” von Neumann said, making him and his fellow Martians believe that they needed “to produce the unusual or face extinction.”
This was a dark and introspective assessment from someone who may have anticipated World War II in Europe but was also remembered as “a cheerful man, an optimist who loved money and believed firmly in human progress,” in the words of one of his lifelong friends. Bhattacharya, a science journalist who also holds a Ph.D. in physics, doesn’t probe too deeply into these apparent contradictions. We get a brisk tour through the first three decades of von Neumann’s life — born in Budapest in 1903, he was a mathematical prodigy who lived a mostly privileged existence — before we land in Princeton, where his real-world influence quickly took off.
Von Neumann came of age when mathematics wasn’t considered a “practical” profession. He studied chemistry too, as a sop to his father, an investment banker — banking being another field that, later on, would become in thrall to mathematics. After arriving in the United States, von Neumann spent nearly a quarter of a century at the Institute for Advanced Study, where his office neighbors included Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. Von Neumann, a New Jersey native, would travel the country teaching and consulting, with a special focus on Los Alamos. Bhattacharya quotes from a report that von Neumann put together for the U.S. Navy, detailing how the “angle of incidence” could make a bomb’s detonation more destructive. Although the report was intended for military audiences, von Neumann seems so excited about his own reasoning that he resorts at exclamation points.
Bhattacharya demonstrates how this unabashedly forthright…