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the man from the future

2 may 2022

If Enrico Fermi didn't already occupy the 20th-century role of the the man who knew everything, John von Neumann would be an obvious candidate. Von Neumann was better than Fermi at a wider range of theoretical pursuits – though he lacked Fermi's taste for running experiments.

Ananyo Bhattacharya's Man from the Future thus ranges across a bewildering gamut of intellectual concerns that von Neumann participated in. We get capsule histories of mathematical first principles, quantum mechanics, the development of the plutonium-lens atomic bomb, the architecture of programmable computers, game theory, nuclear brinksmanship, and self-reproducing automata.

At times von Neumann disappears from the narrative for whole chapters at a time. The resulting vignettes are informative, but they don't contribute much to a biography of von Neumann. Perhaps this complaint is idle. The Man from the Future is supposed to be about how prescient von Neumann was, and how central his concerns were to everything that surrounds us today. But the effect can be almost the opposite. One sees von Neumann working on something for a while, opining, cutting straight through to find elegant mathematical solutions (none of which the average reader can understand), and then disappearing to some other new interest. He was widely acknowledged as the smartest individual problem-solver on Earth, but there were usually many others working along parallel lines who solved the same problems using different approaches. One does get the odd sense, though, that von Neumann had always already figured everything out and was impatient for the rest of the world to catch up.

Bhattacharya presents von Neumann as prickly about priority of discovery, but generous about knowledge itself. He seems to have made some enemies in the nascent computer world by insisting on open-source frameworks, encouraging collaborative creativity for the benefit of all instead of proprietary profit. We seem to owe the better parts of the digital ethos partly to John von Neumann.

Fermi was a natural teacher; von Neumann seems a bit like the guy in the back of the class who already has it all figured out and isn't thinking about the class at all. But von Neumann commanded respect, really awe, from the rest of the intellectual community. Certainly in the field of computing, where he seems to overshadow everybody else, he was able to translate that respect into resources and practical results. Bhattacharya stresses the role that von Neumann's second wife, Klára Dán, played in pioneering computer programming. The von Neumanns formed a power couple in early computer science and imposed their concept of multi-purpose digital machines on the industry in lasting ways.

Bhattacharya, Ananyo. The Man from the Future: The visionary life of John von Neumann. 2021. New York: Norton, 2022.