Von Neumann’s genius was apparent early

Wednesday, November 24th, 2021

Tom Chivers (How to Read Numbers) reviews Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man from the Future, which explores the genius of John von Neumann:

Von Neumann’s genius was apparent early. In 1915, at the age of 11, he had gone to the famous gymnasium school in his native Budapest; the “legendary” maths teacher, László Rátz, immediately realised that von Neumann was beyond his ability to teach, and sent him for extra tuition at the local university. There he was mentored by Gábor Szegö, later head of Stanford’s maths department, who was “moved to tears” by his brilliance.

At 17, still at high school, he partly rescued Cantor’s set theory, the basis of much mathematical theory, from a crippling paradox. A couple of years later, he helped reconcile Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger’s rival models of quantum mechanics. In the early Thirties, he met the astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and worked with him on general relativity and the behaviour of stellar clusters. Chandrasekhar would later tell an interviewer, “If I say, ‘He reminds me of von Neumann,’ that’s about the best compliment I can give anyone.”

Von Neumamm read some Alan Turing research which imagined a hypothetical computing machine, and saw how to build a working computer. The paper he produced building on Turing’s ideas is considered “the birth certificate of modern computers”, according to the computer scientist Wolfgang Coy. With his wife Kläri, and Ulam, he pioneered Monte Carlo simulations, vital now in climate modelling and a million other fields.


What created this genius? Bhattacharya does not speculate a great deal, but there are things worth considering. First, simple genetics: his family was high-achieving. His father was a doctor of law and an economic adviser to the Hungarian government; his uneducated maternal grandfather apparently could “add or multiply numbers into the millions” in his head instantly, a trick von Neumann emulated. The family was “puzzled” by their son’s inability to play the piano properly at the age of five, suggesting rather higher expectations than most. But it turned out to be because he “had taken to propping up books on his music stand so he could read while ‘practising’”.

He also grew up in a fertile environment. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Budapest Jewish community of which he was part produced an astonishing number of great thinkers. Near-contemporaries included Dennis Gabor, “who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1971 for inventing the hologram”; Theodore von Kármán, after whom the “Kármán line” is named, denoting the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space; and Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Leo Szilard, three of the greatest minds behind the Manhattan Project. The atomic bomb has been described as a “Hungarian high school science fair project”.


  1. Adar says:

    Von Neumann a BEING from another planet? Do such persons exist today?

  2. Harry Jones says:

    When parents have outrageously high expectations of a kid, the kid will either overachieve or be driven to suicide. Lots of both in asian cultures.

    Also, there’s nothing simple about genetics.

  3. Jim says:

    Someone has already cloned him. Perhaps multiple someones. Such intelligence is too powerful to be let to lie fallow. The project would be given similar priority to establishing atomic capability. Neither are terrible difficult these days.

  4. Jim says:

    Lead with: “Johnny lives again. Someone has already cloned him…”

    Much better.

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