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The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann Hardcover – February 22, 2022
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An electrifying biography of one of the most extraordinary scientists of the twentieth century and the world he made.
The smartphones in our pockets and computers like brains. The vagaries of game theory and evolutionary biology. Nuclear weapons and self-replicating spacecrafts. All bear the fingerprints of one remarkable, yet largely overlooked, man: John von Neumann.
Born in Budapest at the turn of the century, von Neumann is one of the most influential scientists to have ever lived. A child prodigy, he mastered calculus by the age of eight, and in high school made lasting contributions to mathematics. In Germany, where he helped lay the foundations of quantum mechanics, and later at Princeton, von Neumann’s colleagues believed he had the fastest brain on the planet―bar none. He was instrumental in the Manhattan Project and the design of the atom bomb; he helped formulate the bedrock of Cold War geopolitics and modern economic theory; he created the first ever programmable digital computer; he prophesized the potential of nanotechnology; and, from his deathbed, he expounded on the limits of brains and computers―and how they might be overcome.
Taking us on an astonishing journey, Ananyo Bhattacharya explores how a combination of genius and unique historical circumstance allowed a single man to sweep through a stunningly diverse array of fields, sparking revolutions wherever he went. The Man from the Future is an insightful and thrilling intellectual biography of the visionary thinker who shaped our century.12 illustrations
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― Stephen Budiansky, Wall Street Journal
"Vivid…[The Man From the Future is] devoted to exploring the ideas and technological inquiries [von Neumann] inspired."
― Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
"Lucid and rewarding….Bhattacharya composes a rich intellectual map of von Neumann’s pursuits, shading in their histories and evolutions, and tracing the routes and connections between them."
― Samanth Subramanian, The New Republic
"Examines the tremendous impact von Neumann had on various scientific disciplines in eight exceptional chapters."
― Dov Greenbaum and Mark Gerstein, Science
"Rather like the books of Stephen Hawking or Carlo Rovelli…this one is rewarding on different levels. Everyone can grasp the significance of the puzzles posed, and if readers want to follow the genius through the steps of his solutions then Bhattacharya is a clear and authoritative guide."
― The Economist
"Non-Euclidean geometry, set theory, the prisoner’s dilemma, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, self-replicating machines, game theory and nonlocality are among the astonishing range of topics that science journalist Ananyo Bhattacharya covers as he takes us on a whistle-stop tour through Von Neumann’s restless mind…[A] splendid new biography."
― Manjit Kumar, Guardian
"Bhattacharya both begins and concludes this impressive biography of John von Neumann by celebrating his contribution to the 'march of ideas.'"
― Francis P. Sempa, New York Journal of Books
"Bhattacharya tells the story tremendously well, situating von Neumann’s work―in fields from quantum mechanics to game theory to cellular automata―as comfortably as I’ve ever seen it done. He’s also good at deadpan humor."
― David Bodanis, Financial Times
"Bhattacharya is a first-class science writer with an impeccable pedigree and he does the best job I have seen of explaining the significance of von Neumann's work across many different fields… A fine tribute to von Neumann's genius and his contributions to science."
― John Gribbin, Literary Review
"[An] agile, intelligent, intellectually enraptured account of Von Neumann’s life."
― Simon Ings, Sunday Telegraph
"Any future intelligence capable of sending a representative back in time to help invent itself will be intelligent enough to conceal this from us. Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man from the Future is therefore unable to confirm this suggestion, but much else about John von Neumann’s presence in the twentieth century is revealed along the way."
― George Dyson, author of Turing's Cathedral
"Despite his central contributions to the theory of computation, economics, logic, complexity, and quantum physics, somehow John von Neumann never became a household name to rival Einstein and Feynman. Ananyo Bhattacharya’s biography deserves to change that. Consistently clear and careful without sacrificing elegance or accessibility, it does full justice to this legendary figure of twentieth-century science."
― Philip Ball, author of Beyond Weird
"An engaging and fascinating book that blends science and history. I loved it."
― Paul Davies, author of The Demon in the Machine
"This is a sparkling book, with an intoxicating mix of pen-portraits and grand historical narrative. Above all, it fizzes with a dizzying mix of deliciously vital ideas. The Man from the Future is a staggering achievement."
― Tim Harford, author of How to Make the World Add Up
"More than just a biography, The Man from the Future elucidates the breath-taking scientific progress in the mid-20th century, skillfully woven together in the story of one man, John von Neumann."
― Sabine Hossenfelder, author of Lost in Math
"A gripping tale of the most significant mathematical, scientific and geopolitical events of the early 20th century. Bhattacharya’s storytelling seamlessly weaves together the science, the vibrant social and historical context, and the private idiosyncrasies of John von Neumann and the fascinating geniuses around him, without mythologizing."
― Andrew Steele, author of Ageless
"Sharp, expansive….A salient portrait of one of the most electrifying and productive scientists of the past century."
― Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company (February 22, 2022)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 368 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1324003995
- ISBN-13 : 978-1324003991
- Item Weight : 1.4 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #22,404 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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Where the book shines is in its tour of the various fields of science that have been touched by von Neumann. The description of the fundamental nature of quantum theory and von Neumann's contribution to it is particularly good. This is a fiendishly difficult thing to explain, and I came away with a better understanding than I had before. I was also unaware of von Neumann's important role in this field.
Similarly through the book we learn about economics, game theory, cellular automata and biology.
The book interleaves the science with episodes of von Neumann's life. This is not a chronology of events in the order in which they happened, the flow of the science means that we sometimes jump from the 1920s to the 1950s.
I recommend this book highly to anyone wanting to learn more about Johnny von Neumann & has an appetite for a thorough tour of the many fields of science he left his mark on.
Foundations of logic/sets, foundations of quantum mechanics, operator algebras, the atomic bomb, the computer, games theory, RAND and nuclear strategy, automata and self replicating automata, musings on the relationship between brains and minds. Not a bad run.
The author, though probably not von Neumann, repeats the usual grossly incorrect and limited pop/journalist appraisal of the significance of the work of Godel. Unbelievable how this has propagated down the decades. Godel’s theorems show the incompleteness of classical methods, nothing more, nothing less. Certainly not the incompleteness of math period, or the intrinsic limitations of human knowledge, gheeez. Godel and colleagues were already hard at work on transfinite methods. There is a famous must read letter from Godel to von Neumann about this and the closely related issues of computability and computational complexity.
Von Neumann was as close to being a universal genius as it was possible to be in the twentieth century. He seemed to be into everything. And was acclaimed by all who worked with him as extraordinarily intelligent.
And yet this was one of the men who in the early 50s publicly advocated for the immediate atomic annihilation of the Soviet Union before they got the bomb too and could fire back.
For Jonny this was just being logical. Hmmmm.
Von Neumann was born into a very upper-middle class Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary in 1903. He was a child prodigy from the beginning and received his math Ph.D. before he was twenty. The then studied engineering and before he was thirty, he authored "Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics” which integrated Heisenberg’s matrices with Schrodinger’s waves, a monumental accomplishment.
But that was only the beginning. He developed Minimax theory and at the Army’s Ballistic Research Lab he became an expert at the trajectory of artillery shells. That led him to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos where developed the implosion lens necessary for the creation of the Atomic Bomb. He also conceived of stored program computer which had yet to be invented. Indeed, his second wife Klara was among the very first computer programmers.
Along the way he coauthored with Oskar Morgenstern “The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior” which revolutionized economics and was found to be very useful in business and war strategies, especially concerning the use of nuclear weapons. After World War II he divided his time among Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Los Alamos’ Weapons Lab, and the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California.
While at Rand he instrumental in the development of ICBM’s and he came up with the idea of self-replicating computers. In essence he was the progenitor of artificial intelligence.
Bhattacharya tells the story of a true genus who also loved to party hard. My one criticism is that several of the science and math parts of the book can be a real slog for the lay reader.
Top reviews from other countries
As a result we get a lot more than a discussion of just his life but a series of enormously interesting vignettes on a wide cast, including his second wife, Klari, who has a good claim to be the world's first professional computer programmer, to John Nash via John Conway. Personally I found the parts on Stephen Wolfram of particular interest as they have given me an incentive to return to my copy of "A New Kind of Science" with a bit more grasp of what it's all about.
When I was a lot younger I used to see von Neumann as a sort of (slightly less evil) twin of Edward Teller, but this book helps give you a much wider perspective on why von Neumann adopted the positions he id (and shows that he didn't stab Oppenheimer in the back). Thankfully von Neumann's view that the US should launch a pre-emptive first strike on the Soviet Union was not heeded and it is possible to read all this now without the same dread as in the 80s (though as the book makes clear that doesn't mean nuclear annellation has disappeared as a threat).
I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in a wide variety of mathematical and scientific fields. It would be a good present for any putative or recovering undergraduate.
Von Neumann made major contributions to quantum mechanics, the development of early computers, the theory of games, and thereby much of modern economics, the atom bomb project (for better or for worse), cellular automata, genetic engineering, and the development of artificial intelligence. And probably much else besides, since it seems likely some of his work in secret for the US government remains outside the public domain.
I have been aware of von Neumann’s influence in computing since the 1970s. The vast majority of digital electronic computers ever built (even today in the 2020s) follow something called the von Neumann architecture, which he originated in the 1940s. He therefore, 60 years after his death, continues to influence the design of every smart phone on the plant.
What I had no idea about was the breadth and quality of his contribution to other fields. To pick just one example the coining of the term “zero sum” is attributed to von Neumann.
Furthermore John von Neumann was clearly a bon vivant, which contributes to a lively biography.
Although the book reads likely a panegyric at times, the author does make a good job of supporting with his material with quotes and links to well-known figures in the respective fields. He also provides good brief introductions to the fields von Neumann worked in, allowing a wider public to get some understanding of von Neumann’s many and diverse contributions.
The book does have one or two technically suspect sections. For example (as noted by another Amazon reviewer) I don’t think Bhattacharya’s summary of what of Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem proves is quite right.
But on the whole a very good book: buy it!