More than anyone else, John von Neumann created the future

Tuesday, October 12th, 2021

More than anyone else, John von Neumann created the future:

He came up with a blueprint of the modern computer and sparked the beginnings of artificial intelligence. He worked on the atom bomb and led the team that produced the first computerised weather forecast. In the mid-1950s, he proposed the idea that the Earth was warming as a consequence of humans burning coal and oil, and warned that ‘extensive human intervention’ could wreak havoc with the world’s climate. Colleagues who knew both von Neumann and his colleague Albert Einstein said that von Neumann had by far the sharper mind, and yet it’s astonishing, and sad, how few people have heard of him.

Just like Einstein, von Neumann was a child prodigy. Einstein taught himself algebra at 12, but when he was just six von Neumann could multiply two eight-digit numbers in his head and converse in Ancient Greek. He devoured a 45-volume history of the world and was able to recite whole chapters verbatim decades later. ‘What are you calculating?’ he once asked his mother when he noticed her staring blankly into space. By eight he was familiar with calculus, and his oldest friend, Eugene Wigner, recalls the 11-year-old Johnny tutoring him on the finer points of set theory during Sunday walks. Wigner, who later won a share of the Nobel prize in physics, maintained that von Neumann taught him more about maths than anyone else.

Johnny’s plans (and by extension, the modern world) were nearly derailed by his father, Max, a doctor of law turned investment banker. ‘Mathematics,’ he maintained, ‘does not make money.’ The chemical industry was in its heyday so a compromise was reached that would mark the beginning of von Neumann’s peripatetic lifestyle: the boy would bone up on chemistry at the University of Berlin and meanwhile would also pursue a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Budapest.


  1. Ezra says:

    It was said that even his esteemed peers said of Johnny that he was in a class all by himself. Of another species far superior than mere mortals.

    Surprised everyone by becoming a Catholic on his death bed.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Many individuals have contributed to progress in many different ways. There is an argument that the many people who developed the technology for clean water and effective wastewater treatment built the future — without them, the odds were that von Neumann and Einstein and many others would have died from disease in infancy.

    One guy who gets even less attention than von Neumann is Claude Shannon, who essentially single-handedly created the discipline of information theory on which modern electronic communications rely. There are not so many good books & articles about Shannon — and it is very tough to understand those essential theories he created.

  3. David Foster says:

    I wrote about the ENIAC project, in which both von Neumann and his wife Klara were deeply involved, here:

  4. Altitude Zero says:

    Von Neumann was probably the smartest man that our species ever produced. He also hated Communism, was a total party animal, and converted to Christianity (as noted above) on his deathbed. Seems like there’s a message there…

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