sat 16/10/2021

Ananyo Bhattacharya: The Man from the Future review - the man, the maths, the brain | reviews, news & interviews

Ananyo Bhattacharya: The Man from the Future review - the man, the maths, the brain

Ananyo Bhattacharya: The Man from the Future review - the man, the maths, the brain

Revealing the huge influence of John von Neumann

Medical researcher-turned-science writer Dr Ananyo Bhattacharya

Suppose I’m a novelist plotting a panoramic narrative through world-shaping moments of the first half of the 20th century. I’ll need a character who can visit a bunch of key sites. Göttingen in the 1920s, where the essentials of quantum mechanics were thrashed out. Los Alamos in the 1940s for the fashioning of atom bombs.

Königsberg in September 1930, to hear Kurt Gödel announce that Hilbert’s great programme to establish mathematics on a firm foundation is impossible, and he has proved it.

Maybe my character could also catch Alan Turing in Princeton where he is correcting the proofs of On Computable Numbers a few years later? And have free access to the RAND Corporation in the 1940s as they pursue systems analysis, and nuclear deterrence as a branch of game theory? Surely we’re stretching plausibility now.

And yet the fiction is redundant. One person not only tasted all these milieux but played a key role in guiding their thinking. John (once János) von Neumann did all these things and more.

As Ananyo Bhattacharya makes clear in this admirably compact treatment of his life, what made this possible was a startling gift for mathematics. From his beginnings as a child prodigy in Budapest to his premature death from cancer in his early fifties, he astonished simply everyone, fellow mathematical adepts or no, with the speed and depth of his thought. Biography’s focus on the individual life comes with a temptation to overestimate one person’s historical importance, but it seems fair to claim there was no-one like von Neumann.

The Man from the Future front coverThe list of his contributions to mathematics is long, which may explain why biographies are few – there’s so much to understand and try to explain. Bhattacharya, a seasoned science writer, is understandably selective about the maths, and focuses on work that had wider implications. There was a lot of that, too, and he works in impressively clear brief accounts of quantum mechanics, Gödel’s theorem, and the physics of explosives – von Neumann’s contribution at Los Alamos was working out the optimal shapes for the conventional charges that compressed fissile material when the bomb was detonated, triggering the nuclear blast.

That’s not all. Doing justice to Johnny also calls for an exposition of the principles of computer design (which he summarised in such magisterial fashion that all the machines we now rely on use what is known as the von Neumann architecture) and the mathematics of game theory, which he introduced to the world in a massive book co-authored with the economist Oskar Morgenster in 1950.

Von Neumann wrote plenty of one-off maths papers that spawned whole new sub-fields of enquiry, but Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour may be his most influential work. (Morgenstern’s main role was highlighting the necessity for economists to think harder about human behaviour, and the trade-offs when people respond to each other’s actions.) Most of us now have some passing familiarity with ideas like zero-sum games, or the prisoner’s dilemma, and game theory has been applied in contexts including nuclear strategy, developments in Darwinian algebra (which explain how co-operation can be evolutionarily stable), and writing the rules for billion-dollar rights auctions of bands in the radio spectrum. From there, it spread rapidly through the algorithms used to structure revenue flows in internet advertising and commerce, an ever-increasing chunk of the global economy.

That’s quite a legacy, and underlines how von Neumann, whose life after World War Two was a non-stop round of peripatetic consultation for companies, governments and defence and civil agencies, constantly took his mathematical approach into areas where it could be applied in unexpected ways. His last major effort in this vein was elaborating the theory of self-replicating automata – artificial assemblies that, like living organisms, incorporate both the information and the machinery for copying themselves. We are now awash in speculation, and some real research, about how such devices might themselves evolve. The origin of the powerful combination of ideas in play here is recognised by the designation of the self-replicators we might send off to another star system as “von Neumann probes”.

 If we don’t get much of a sense of what it was like to be Johnny, it may be that any normal mortal would struggle to capture thatBhattacharya manages to cover this dazzling range of ideas clearly and compellingly in not much more than 200 pages. The book is tagged as an intellectual biography. We learn the key facts of his life: that von Neumann, raised in a prosperous Jewish home in Budapest, was a bon viveur, fond of money, fast cars and parties, preferably well lubricated ones. But the intellectual life is really enough for one author to take on. And if we don’t get much of a sense of what it was like to be Johnny, it may be that any normal mortal would struggle to capture that. Was he subject to the loneliness that can afflict those who are invariably the cleverest contributor to any conversation, as well as being gregarious in his own way? It seems likely, but if so, neither he nor those close to him gave much hint of it. We can reconstruct his thought from his notes, books and papers, and from a host of historians and analysts. His emotional life is glimpsed only at the close of the book. Terrified of the end, he startled friends by returning to the Catholicism his family had once embraced long before in Budapest. We may imagine it was little consolation. When cancer reached his brain, it finally destroyed what his compatriot Edward Teller saw as his lifelong addiction to thinking: “I think he suffered from this loss more than I have ever seen any human to suffer,” Teller said. The quality of thought on display in this deft outline shows why.


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