Reading Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man from the Future for The Telegraph, 7 November 2021
Neumann János Lajos, born in Budapest in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish family, negotiated some of the most lethal traps set by the twentieth century, and did so with breathtaking grace. Not even a painful divorce could dent his reputation for charm, reliability and kindness.
A mathematician with a vise-like memory, he survived, and saved others, from the rise of Nazism. He left Austria and joined Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study when he was just 29. He worked on ballistics in Second World War, atom and hydrogen bombs in Cold War. Disturbed yet undaunted by the prospect of nuclear armageddon, he still found time to develop game theory, to rubbish economics, and to establish artificial intelligence as a legitimate discipline.
He died plain ‘Johnny von Neumman’, in 1957, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, surrounded by heavy security in case, in his final delirium, he spilled any state secrets.
Following John Von Neumann’s life is rather like playing chess against a computer: he has all the best moves already figured out. ‘A time traveller,’ Ananyo Bhattacharya calls him, ‘quietly seeding ideas that he knew would be needed to shape the Earth’s future.’ Mathematician Rózsa Péter’s assessment of von Neumann’s powers is even more unsettling: ‘Other mathematicians prove what they can,’ she declared; ‘von Neumann proves what he wants.’
Von Neumann had the knack (if we can use so casual a word) of reduced a dizzying variety of seemingly intractable technical dilemmas to problems in logic. In Vienna he learned from David Hilbert how to think systematically about mathematics, using step-by-step, mechanical procedures. Later he used that insight to play midwife to the computer. In between he rendered the new-fangled quantum theory halfway comprehensible (by explaining how Heisenberg’s and Schrödinger’s wildly different quantum models said the same thing); then, at Los Alamos, he helped perfect the atom bomb and co-invented the unimaginably more powerful H-bomb.
He isn’t even dull! The worst you can point to is some mild OCD: Johnny fiddles a bit too long with the light switches. Otherwise — what? He enjoys a drink. He enjoys fast cars. He’s jolly. You can imagine having a drink with him. He’d certainly make you feel comfortable. Here’s Edward Teller in 1966: ‘Von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my three-year-old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us.’
In embarking on his biography of von Neumann, then, Bhattacharya sets himself a considerable challenge: writing about a man who, through crisis after crisis, through stormy intellectual disagreements and amid political controversy, contrived always, for his own sake and others’, to avoid unnecessary drama.
What’s a biographer to do, when part of his subject’s genius is his ability to blend in with his friends, and lead a good life? How to dramatise a man without flaws, who skates through life without any of the personal turmoil that makes for gripping storytelling?
If some lives resist the storyteller’s art, Ananyo Bhattacharya does a cracking job of hiding the fact. He sensibly, and very ably, moves the biographical goal-posts, making this not so much the story of a flesh-and-blood man, more the story of how an intellect evolves, moving as intellects often do (though rarely so spectacularly) from theoretical concerns to applications to philosophy. ‘As he moved from pure mathematics to physics to economics to engineering,’ observed former colleague Freeman Dyson, ‘[Von Neumann] became steadily less deep and steadily more important,’
Von Neumann did not really trust humanity to live up, morally, to its technical capacities. ‘What we are creating now,’ he told his wife, after a sleepless night contemplating an H bomb design, ‘is a monster whose influence is going to change history, provided there is any history left.’ He was a quintessentially European pessimist, forged by years that saw the world he had grown up in being utterly destroyed. It is no fanciful ‘man from the future’, and no mere cynic, who writes, ‘We will be able to go into space way beyond the moon if only people could keep pace with what they create.’
Bhattacharya’s agile, intelligent, intellectually enraptured account of John von Neumann’s life reveals, after all, not “a man from the future”, not a one-dimensional cold-war warrior and for sure not Dr Strangelove (though Peter Sellars nicked his accent). Bhattacharya argues convincingly that Von Neumann was a man in whose extraordinarily fertile head the pre-war world found an all-too-temporary lifeboat.