What couldn’t von Neumann do?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

Reading The Man From the Future, Steve Sailer notes, it’s hard not to acknowledge mathematics as the king of the disciplines:

Von Neumann was first and foremost a mathematician, a protégé of David Hilbert, the most influential mathematician of the early 20th century. He delighted Hilbert by offering, as a teenager, a response to Bertrand Russell’s Paradox that was undermining confidence in Hilbert’s program for mathematical progress.

From von Neumann’s position of strength on the intellectual high ground of math, the adult prodigy then conducted a series of lightning raids on lesser fields:

Physics (helping reconcile the seemingly conflicting quantum-mechanics approaches of Heisenberg and Schrödinger).

Engineering (leading the design of the implosion device for triggering the first-ever atomic bomb, which was exploded at Trinity, New Mexico, in July 1945).

Economics (more or less inventing the subject of game theory and coining the useful term “zero-sum game”).

Computer science (articulating in 1945 the von Neumann architecture that instantly became the standard way to design general-purpose computers; note that he didn’t invent the computer, but his clarity of mind and prestige helped get the American computer industry off to a quick start on the right foot).

Nuclear war strategy (hanging out at the early RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, von Neumann offered ideas for dealing with the Soviets that tended to be less Dr. Strangelove than Gen. Buck Turgidson. Like the leftist pacifist Russell in the late 1940s, von Neumann kicked around the idea of nuking the Soviets before they got the Bomb and could retaliate).

Psychology (writing a book on the subject while dying of cancer).

What couldn’t von Neumann do? Bhattacharya lists a few of the great man’s shortcomings: He hated sports and anything else you couldn’t do in a well-tailored business suit, was a bad driver, had little musical ability, was not terribly interested in hearing about the feelings of the women in his life, and was an enthusiastic but mediocre chess player. Fascinatingly, an endnote mentions that the inventor of game theory was a notoriously poor poker player.


  1. Ezra says:

    Became a Catholic on his deathbed much to the surprise to many? He knew something the rest of us don’t?

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    As I recall, Von Neumann always said that he believed in God because things made more sense that way, although as far as I know he never elaborated. Sounds like he put his belief to good use.

  3. lucklucky says:

    So some of his shortcomings were mostly related to spatial capability. Maybe he had an inferior vision.

  4. Ezra says:

    “Von Neumann always said that he believed in God because things made more sense that way”

    In lieu of a better explanation, it does make sense.

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