JOHN VON NEUMANN by Norman Macrae


The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, and Nuclear Deterrance
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 Macrae, former editor of the Economist and author of The 2025 Report (1985), offers an oddly jocular biography of the Hungarian mathematical prodigy who would become a highly influential cold warrior before his death in 1957--an account whose credibility is hindered by the author's unabashed reverence for his subject. One of the four Hungarian geniuses who would help introduce the Atomic Age at Los Alamos (the others were Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Wigner), von Neumann made his mark in Europe while barely past his teens through his contributions to a mathematical foundation for the new quantum physics. In 1930, the young, newly married mathematician emigrated to America to teach at Princeton. While von Neumann moved on in succeeding years to increasingly influential posts at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Los Alamos atom-bomb project, Teller's hydrogen-bomb program, and, finally, the freshly created Atomic Energy Commission, his agile and highly logical mind left an indelible mark on the computer revolution, games theory, economics, and, as his political clout increased, international relations. Despite the fact that the general reader is as likely to be interested in the development of von Neumann's hawkish political stance (particularly regarding the nuclear-arms race), and his odd fascination with such topics as global government and control of the weather, as in his scientific contributions, Macrae veers away from serious exploration of his subject's philosophical outlook--instead emphasizing (and applauding) the ease with which ``our Johnny'' used dirty jokes to evade emotional political debate, and ridiculing those of differing political temperament (e.g., deeming ``Bertie'' Russell and Norbert Wiener ``geniuses turned emotionally too dotty''). The effect is off-putting, and though ``Johnny's'' romp through world affairs is dutifully recounted, the private motivations of this hard-drinking, power-loving genius remain, in quintessential 50's style, drowned in nervous laughter. (B&w photos--16 pages--not seen.)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-679-41308-1
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1992