JOHN VON NEUMANN AND NORBERT WIENER by Steve J. Heims

JOHN VON NEUMANN AND NORBERT WIENER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The stuff of Helms' study--a pair of child prodigies, mathematical geniuses, eccentrics, Jews, academic heavyweights, cultural powers--is almost too good to be true. Wiener and von Neumann were legends in their lifetimes, men whose paths often crossed and whose mutual affection and respect persisted, even when political views separated them in later years. Helms, a former research physicist, is fascinated by the men's personal history within a larger history-of-science context. He uses the biographies to illustrate what he sees as a dawning consciousness in science: the view that science is value-laden; that scientists make decisions that are fraught with social, political, and moral implications. In that light, von Neumann emerges as something of a villain: a son who very much reflects his upper-middle-class assimilationist Jewish parents in Budapest, people who collaborated with the right-wing aristocracy to maintain power and wealth. (The ""von"" was a bribe to woo Papa Neumann's loyalty.) In contrast, Wiener was the son of an eccentric liberal Russian Jew who rose from peddler to professor of Slavic languages at Harvard. Wiener did not learn he was Jewish until adolescence. His lifelong maverick nature, in turn, made him suspicious of all elites, be they academic (he resigned from the National Academy of Science), social, or political. Von Neumann, for his part, cozied up to the military, enjoyed his role as Atomic Energy Commissioner, and espoused anti-Russian attitudes that rivaled Teller's. These facts, the men's scientific legacies, and Heims' speculations on the prevalence of genius among eastern European Jewish ÉmigrÉs after World War I are, in toto, provocative and fascinating. Yet the book is flawed. Heims' style is often gray when it is not over-earnest, even preachy. There are gaps, too: Why no mention of the U-2 incident? Just what was the relationship between von Neumann and Teller? What were the occasions for Wiener's fallings out with some of his close friends and collaborators? Withal, this is an important contribution to the history of ideas. Helms makes a point of contrasting intellectual styles as well as explaining scientific inventiveness: Wiener's was a ""process"" orientation in which physical events or biological organisms were seen in all their dynamism; it led Wiener to notions of feedback and control. In contrast, von Neumann built elegant abstract models whose invincible logical schema led to novel developments in mathematics and illuminated many branches of physics. Here, indeed, Helms is at his best.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1980
Publisher: MIT Press