Science & People

John von Neumann | Biography, accomplishments, and quotes

John von Neumann was born in Budapest. He was the eldest of the three sons of a wealthy and cultured banker Jewish family. He took lessons from a private teacher until he was 10 years old, and then started studying at the Lutheran High School in the capital of Hungary. His remarkable ability was evident from an early age; he had almost a photographic memory, and the ability to quickly perform arithmetic calculations from the mind.

Who is John von Neumann?

At the age of 18, he enrolled in the mathematics department of the University of Budapest, but spent most of his time in Berlin getting to know the European scientific elite. He then started his doctorate at the University of Budapest, but also studied chemical engineering at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, due to the insistence of his father who wanted his son to have a professional education. He received a bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from ETH in 1925 and a Ph.D in mathematics from the University of Budapest in 1926.

John von Neumann received the Rockefeller Scholarship from the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1926. The next year he was appointed privatdozent (faculty member) to the University of Berlin, the youngest privatdozent in the history of the university. He conducted extensive researches in the 1920s on mathematical logic, set theory, operator theory, and quantum mechanics. In the 1930s, he became a guest professor at Princeton University, dividing his time between Berlin and Princeton for several years. However, he wanted a permanent position in the United States due to the deteriorating political situation in Europe.

This opportunity came from the newly established Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1933 by appointing as a founding professor (the other professor was Einstein). He became an American citizen in 1937. Von Neumann achieved fundamental results in institutional and applied mathematics at the institute and also developed his game theory. He wrote the Theory of Games and Economic Behavior in 1944 with the collaboration of Oskar Morganstern, and the book was a milestone in mathematical economics.

Wartime calculations and the first electronic computer

John von Neumann and J. Robert Oppenheimer, former director of the Manhattan Project, in front of the IAS machine in 1952.
John von Neumann and J. Robert Oppenheimer, former director of the Manhattan Project, in front of the IAS machine in 1952.

Von Neumann had a pleasant personality, great social skills, and brilliant political intelligence. When the United States entered World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 1941, there was a huge increase in demands for consulting services. John von Neumann served in this field, thanks to his adaptability, legendary mental abilities, and talent to solve complex math problems easily. In 1943 he turned his attention to war-related work, especially numerical computational problems.

Most importantly, he was a consultant to the Manhattan Project in Las Alamos. There he consulted on implosion techniques to detonate the nuclear material in the center of the atomic bomb. This process included the numerical solution of complex math system equations, so he tried to find the most advanced calculators available.

John von Neumann was also a consultant to the US Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. One of the lab's main tasks was the production of ballistic charts, and the founding of the first electronic computer—ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer)—that was developing by Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania. Due to technical and design constraints, ENIAC was not suitable for Neumann's atomic bomb calculations, but in cooperation with the group at Moore, they designed the successor machine, EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer).

In June 1945, he summarized the group's findings in his report First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. The report provided the logical definition of what is known as "stored-program computer" that all subsequent computer developments would be based on. The computer was called by this name because both the program and the numbers were using the same electronic memory. This greatly increased the power and flexibility of the computer, as it meant that now a program could run its own instructions without the need for clumsy methods of programming such as plugboards, punched cards, and paper.

John von Neumann and the hydrogen bomb

In 1946, von Neumann returned to the Institute for Advanced Study, leading the construction of one of the first practical computers. With the advent of general-purpose computers, he began to be concerned with numerical weather forecasting and more philosophical, cybernetics, and automata. At the same time, he continued to advise on the development of the hydrogen bomb in Los Alamos.

In 1954, President Eisenhower took over the Atomic Energy Commission. Here he made an impact on science and military policy with an inclination to war. Neumann was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1955, and he eventually died of this disease.

His last major competence was the preparation of Silliman Conferences for Yale University, which was published in 1958 after his death under the name The Computer and the Brain. He died in 1957 at the age of 53.

John von Neumann quotes

  • “If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.”
  • “Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.”
  • “It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.”
  • “There's no sense in being precise when you don't even know what you're talking about”
  • “Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin.”
  • “Can we survive technology?”