December 28, 1903, is the birthdate of John von Neumann, a mathematical thinker who had a hand in some of the most significant developments of the 20th century. On the one hand, Von Neumann’s early conceptual thinking about computers served as a basis, no less than Alan Turing’s work, for the digital age. On the other, the fact that mankind came so close to destroying itself during the Cold War – and also that it avoided doing so – can be attributed to him, as the inventor of the concept of “mutually assured destruction.”
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He was born Janos Lajos Neumann, in Budapest, to a highly secularized Jewish family. His father, Miksa (or Max) Neumann, was a banker with a doctorate in law, and his mother, the former Margaret Kann, was from a family that had prospered from the manufacture of heavy farm equipment.
Jancsi, as he was known in Hungary – in America later, everyone called him Johnny – revealed extraordinary mental powers from an early age. At 6, he could divide eight-digit numbers in his mind, and swapped jokes with his father in Greek. At 8, he had mastered differential and integral calculus. He possessed a photographic memory that enabled him to read and commit to his permanent memory an entire book.
After attending the prestigious Lutheran Gymnasium in Budapest, and after the family briefly went into exile during Hungary’s experience with a communist regime, in 1919 Neumann began his university studies by pursuing degrees simultaneously in both mathematics (his passion) and chemical engineering (to placate his father, who was concerned that his son be able to support himself), at the University of Budapest and the Swiss Federal Institute, respectively.
From quantum theory to meteorology
After the death of Max von Neumann (the “von” was added to the name in 1913, after he was elevated to the nobility for his economic advice to the government), his surviving family converted to Roman Catholicism, although Johnny remained an agnostic until just before his death.
Von Neumann came to Princeton University in 1930, and three years later was one of the six mathematicians invited to comprise the initial faculty of its Institute for Advanced Study.
After several years of incredible mathematical fecundity (between 1927 and 1929, he had turned out one major paper per month), Von Neumann switched gears from abstract to applied science in the 1930s. His impact was felt on quantum theory, game theory and economics, meteorology, artificial intelligence and both nuclear arms and strategy, among other fields.
He was one of the first scientists invited to join the Manhattan Project, helping both to design the trigger for the first atomic bombs, and to choose Hiroshima and Nagasaki as their targets. After World War II, he worked on designing a model for the hydrogen bomb with Klaus Fuchs, who later passed on their research to the Soviet Union.
Great parties and Yiddish jokes
Von Neumann described himself as “violently anti-Communist,” and even proposed a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S.S.R. He was an early proponent of mounting nuclear warheads onto intercontinental missiles, and coined the phrase mutually assured destruction (MAD, for short) for the concept of mutual deterrence that got the world safely through the Cold War. He remained one of the architects of America’s nuclear strategy until his death, in 1957, even attending meetings in a wheelchair (or at his bedside in hospital), which may have been the inspiration for the title character of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.”
Von Neumann was instrumental in persuading the Institute for Advanced Study to invest $100,000 in the construction of an early programmable digital computer – which he dubbed MANIAC, for “mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator, and computer.”
In addition to his unparalleled brilliance, Von Neumann was known by his peers for his great parties, his Yiddish jokes and his rapport with children.
In 1956, at 52, Von Neumann developed bone cancer – possibly caused by his exposure to radiation during nuclear tests he witnessed. Shortly before his death, on February 8, 1957, he called for a Catholic priest and reconfirmed his conversion of 27 years earlier.