John von Neumann


John von Neumann : biography

28 December 1903 – 8 February 1957

Weather systems

Von Neumann’s team performed the world’s first numerical weather forecasts on the ENIAC computer; von Neumann published the paper Numerical Integration of the Barotropic Vorticity Equation in 1950. Von Neumann’s interest in weather systems and meteorological prediction led him to propose manipulating the environment by spreading colorants on the polar ice caps to enhance absorption of solar radiation (by reducing the albedo), thereby inducing global warming.MacRae, p. 332Heims, pp. 236–247.

Cognitive abilities

Von Neumann’s ability to instantaneously perform complex operations in his head stunned other mathematicians.Goldstine, p. 171. Eugene Wigner wrote that, seeing von Neumann’s mind at work, "one had the impression of a perfect instrument whose gears were machined to mesh accurately to a thousandth of an inch."Eugene Wigner, , Springer 2002, p. 129 ISBN 3540572945. Paul Halmos states that "von Neumann’s speed was awe-inspiring." Israel Halperin said: "Keeping up with him was… impossible. The feeling was you were on a tricycle chasing a racing car."Michael Kaplan, Ellen Kaplan, Chances are–: adventures in probability, Viking 2006 Edward Teller wrote that von Neumann effortlessly outdid anybody he ever met,Darwin Among the Machines: the Evolution of Global Intelligence, Perseus Books, 1998, George Dyson, 77 and said "I never could keep up with him".John von Neumann, by Edward Teller, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1957, p. 150.

Lothar Wolfgang Nordheim described von Neumann as the "fastest mind I ever met", and Jacob Bronowski wrote "He was the cleverest man I ever knew, without exception. He was a genius."Jacob Brownowski, The Ascent of Man, BBC 1976, p. 433 ISBN 1849901155. George Pólya, whose lectures at ETH Zurich von Neumann attended as a student, said "Johnny was the only student I was ever afraid of. If in the course of a lecture I stated an unsolved problem, the chances were he’d come to me at the end of the lecture with the complete solution scribbled on a slip of paper."Miodrag Petković, , American Mathematical Soc., 2009, p. 157 ISBN 0821848143. Halmos recounts a story told by Nicholas Metropolis, concerning the speed of von Neumann’s calculations, when somebody asked von Neumann to solve the famous fly puzzle:

Von Neumann had a very strong eidetic memory, commonly called ‘photographic’ memory. Herman Goldstine writes: "One of his remarkable abilities was his power of absolute recall. As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how The Tale of Two Cities started. Whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes."Goldstine, p. 167.

It has been said that von Neumann’s intellect was absolutely unmatched. “I always thought Von Neumann’s brain indicated that he was from another species, an evolution beyond man,” said Nobel Laureate Hans A. Bethe of Cornell University. "It seems fair to say that if the influence of a scientist is interpreted broadly enough to include impact on fields beyond science proper, then John von Neumann was probably the most influential mathematician who ever lived," wrote Miklos Redai in "Selected Letters."

Glimm writes "he is regarded as one of the giants of modern mathematics". The mathematician Jean Dieudonné called von Neumann "the last of the great mathematicians",Dictionary of Scientific Bibliography, ed. C. C. Gillispie, Scibners, 1981 while Peter Lax described him as possessing the "most scintillating intellect of this century",Glimm, p. 7 and Hans Bethe stated "I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man".Blair, pp. 89–104.