Some would claim that smartest person of the twentieth century worked down the hall from Albert Einstein at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.
John von Neumann, who was born in Budapest in 1903 and emigrated to the United States in 1930, was a seminal thinker in mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and fluid dynamics), economics (game theory), computing (Von Neumann architecture, linear programming, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics.
Von Neumann’s prodigiousness was apparent from a young age. By eight he could divide two eight-digit numbers in his head. By 19 he had published two major mathematical papers, and by 22 he had a Ph.D. in mathematics with minors in experimental physics and chemistry.
The Hungarian-American joined Princeton University in 1930 and was a professor there until his death in 1957. A loud and sociable character, he sometimes annoyed colleagues including Einstein with his habit of blasting German marching music on his office gramophone. During World War II, Von Neumann would join Einstein and other leading scientists in developing the atomic bomb in the Manhattan project.
Von Neumann was so bright that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner would say, “only he was fully awake.” He had “the fastest mind” that economist Paul Samuelson had ever encountered and was “the cleverest man in the world” according to head of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, as noted by Daniel Yergin in “The Quest.”
One of von Neumann’s major accomplishments was his leadership in developing a way to make the enormous amount of calculations that went into making the atomic bomb. The earliest computers had to be “programmed” physically, with different components connected in different ways to solve a given problem. Von Neumann figured out instead how to store programs as software in computer memory, which would become the basic architecture for how modern computers work.
He was also pioneer of game theory, or the formal mathematical analysis of certain types of games, which has numerous applications to economics and other social sciences. Indeed, von Neumann’s development of the theory of zero-sum games later led to his coming up with the Cold War strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Von Neumann also made numerous contributions to pure mathematics and physics. A big part of von Neumann’s work in these areas was in developing the formal mathematical tools that describe quantum mechanics. Many of the strange aspects of quantum mechanics are implied by the mathematical structures used to describe the behaviour of the universe on the smallest scales.
But how did von Neumann compare to Einstein, the German-American theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity and some of the earliest ideas in quantum mechanics? The answer, which as been hotly debated on economics forums, favours von Neumann in some areas and Einstein in others. Certainly, Einstein obtained greater fame, however, and perhaps this is justified.
Wigner may have said it best: “Einstein’s understanding was deeper even than von Neumann’s. His mind was both more penetrating and more original than von Neumann’s. And that is a very remarkable statement.”
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