John von Neumann University

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John von Neumann: The man behind the name


John von Neumann — “Margittai Neumann János Lajos” in Hungarian — was born in Budapest on 28 December 1903.

At the age of six, he could divide eight-digit numbers in his head. At the age of eight, differential calculus came to him with ease. At the age of ten, he spoke six languages, and would joke with his father in Ancient Greek.

He attended “Fasori” Lutheran Secondary School, as did Eugene Paul Wigner, Kálmán Kandó and, later on, John Harsányi.

In those years, Budapest produced a multitude of world-famous scientists, but whenever someone called von Neumann’s Nobel Prize-winning colleagues and friends “geniuses”, they replied that there was really only one true genius among them — “ Jancsi”, or Johnny, as he came to be known. In the words of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Paul Wigner: “There are two types of men in the world: Johnny von Neumann and the rest of us.”

Von Neumann studied Mathematics in Budapest and Chemistry in Berlin, and obtained a degree in Chemical Engineering in Zürich. In 1926, his doctoral dissertation revolutionised set theory.

George Pólya was von Neumann’s professor in Zürich. Whenever he got to an unsolved problem during the lecture, von Neumann would put his hand up five minutes later and then scribble the solution on the board. Pólya confessed that von Neumann was the only student he had ever been afraid of.

After completing his studies, von Neumann did research in Göttingen. He was a privatdozent in Berlin and Hamburg before being invited by the University of Princeton in 1930, where he became the youngest-ever university professor in the United States. In 1932, he produced the mathematical foundations for quantum mechanics, and from 1933 he worked at the Institute of Advanced Studies together with Albert Einstein.

He spoke English with a heavy accent. Even when he accidentally pronounced a word properly, he quickly corrected himself, falling back into his Hungarian accent.

Before relocating to the United States, he married Marietta Köves. In 1935, they had a daughter, Marina von Neumann Whitman, who is now a Professor of Business Administration and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Following a divorce from his first wife, he later married Klára Dán.

“If people don’t believe that mathematics is simple, it’s only because they don’t realise how complicated life is,” von Neumann reputedly said.

From 1944, von Neumann participated in designing the first electronic computer. The foundations of computer science have gone down in academic history as “Neumann’s Principle”. His interest in applied mathematics later oriented him towards the Manhattan Project.

Though von Neumann wasn’t particularly good at gambling, he often played poker with Edward Teller and their friends in Los Alamos — experience that helped him to produce his “game theory”.

His “minimax theorem”, created in 1944 in cooperation with Oskar Morgenstein, has been applied ever since in the domains of economics, psychology, sociology, law, political science, and evolution studies. The guiding principle of subsequent U.S. foreign policy, the strategy of nuclear deterrence was also based on his game theory.

 

“(1) John von Neumann can prove any claim.

(2) Whatever von Neumann has proved is true.”

— Edward Teller, the “Father of the H-bomb”

 

In 1955, von Neumann was appointed member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. Most likely due to the radiation poisoning to which he was exposed during his work, he developed bone cancer and died on 8 February 1957 in Washington, D.C. in the hospital bed reserved for U.S. Presidents. His last book, left unfinished, was titled The Computer and the Brain.

 

“I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann's does not indicate a species superior to that of man". —  Hans Bethe, Nobel Prize winner physicist

 

John von Neumann considered his achievements to be public property, and would not have them patented. A minor planet, a lunar crater, streets, grammar schools, technical schools, faculties, awards, and societies have all been named after him — as has our University, of course.