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THE MAN FROM THE FUTURE by Ananyo Bhattacharya


The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

by Ananyo Bhattacharya

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-324-00399-1
Publisher: Norton

A sharp, expansive biography of John von Neumann (1903-1957), a titanic 20th-century scientist.

From game theory to quantum mechanics to atom bombs, von Neumann was involved in some of the most profound scientific and technological advances in modern history. Renowned for his extraordinary mathematical ability and prodigious aptitude for applying pure math to other fields, von Neumann “understood that [he had] a path to wealth, influence and the power to transform the world.” In his riveting exploration of von Neumann’s life and work, medical researcher Bhattacharya, a former science correspondent at the Economist and editor at Nature, easily navigates among complicated concepts—von Neumann’s impact was wide-ranging and the effects of his work influenced economics, politics, neuroscience, and computing—and explains the significance of his subject’s accomplishments in terms that are easily understood by nonscientists. The author also deftly interweaves von Neumann’s personal life, relating anecdotes about his background and formative years in his native Hungary, which was blessed with money and prestige, as well as his relationships with his colleagues in Germany and the U.S.—Einstein, Gödel, and Oppenheimer, among others. Often characterized as an unflinching intellect, von Neumann was integral to the success of the Manhattan Project, but he also published critical essays on subjects including artificial intelligence and carbon emissions long before these subjects entered mainstream discourse. Bhattacharya argues that it is von Neumann’s astonishing prescience that sets him apart. He was able to sense how scientific discoveries would affect the future and how advancing technologies would lead to inequality and conflict among people and nations. In a passage that could easily apply today, von Neumann wrote, “any attempt to find automatically safe channels for the present explosive variety of progress must lead to frustration. The only safety possible is relative, and it lies in an intelligent exercise of day-to-day judgment.”

A salient portrait of one of the most electrifying and productive scientists of the past century.