John von Neumann


John von Neumann : biography

28 December 1903 – 8 February 1957

Early life and education

Von Neumann was born Neumann János Lajos ( in Hungarian the family name comes first) in Budapest, Austro-Hungarian Empire, to wealthy Jewish parents.Doran, p. 1Nathan Myhrvold, Time, March 21, 1999. Accessed September 5, 2010Blair, p. 104 He was the eldest of three brothers. His father, Neumann Miksa (Max Neumann) was a banker, who held a doctorate in law. He had moved to Budapest from Pécs at the end of the 1880s. Miksa’s father (Mihály b. 1839) and grandfather (Márton) were both born in Ond (now part of the town of Szerencs), Zemplén county, northern Hungary. John’s mother was Kann Margit (Margaret Kann).MacRae, pp. 37–38

Her parents were: Jakab Kann II (Pest (now Budapest) 1845-1928) and Katalin Meisels ( Munkács, Kárpátalja c 1854-1914). In 1913, his father was elevated to the nobility for his service to the Austro-Hungarian empire by Emperor Franz Josef. The Neumann family thus acquiring the hereditary title margittai, Neumann János became margittai Neumann János (John Neumann of Margitta), which he later changed to the German Johann von Neumann. János, nicknamed "Jancsi" (Johnny), was an extraordinary child prodigy in the areas of language, memorization, and mathematics. As a 6 year old, he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head.Poundstone, William, Prisoner’s Dilemma, New York: Doubleday 1992 By the age of 8, he was familiar with differential and integral calculus.

John entered the German-speaking Lutheran high school Fasori Evangelikus Gimnázium in Budapest in 1911. Although his father insisted he attend school at the grade level appropriate to his age, he agreed to hire private tutors to give him advanced instruction in those areas in which he had displayed an aptitude. At the age of 15, he began to study advanced calculus under the renowned analyst Gábor Szegő. On their first meeting, Szegő was so astounded with the boy’s mathematical talent that he was brought to tears.Glimm, p. 5

Szegő subsequently visited the von Neumann house twice a week to tutor the child prodigy. Some of von Neumann’s instant solutions to the problems in calculus posed by Szegő, sketched out with his father’s stationery, are still on display at the von Neumann archive in Budapest.MacRae, p. 70 By the age of 19, von Neumann had published two major mathematical papers, the second of which gave the modern definition of ordinal numbers, which superseded Georg Cantor’s definition.Nasar, Sylvia, A Beautiful Mind, London 2001, p. 81 ISBN 0743224574.

He received his Ph.D. in mathematics (with minors in experimental physics and chemistry) from Pázmány Péter University in Budapest at the age of 22. He simultaneously earned a diploma in chemical engineering from the ETH Zurich in Switzerland at his father’s request, who wanted his son to follow him into industry and therefore invest his time in a more financially useful endeavour than mathematics.





In 1955, von Neumann was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer.While there is a general agreement that the initially discovered bone tumor was a secondary growth, sources differ as to the location of the primary cancer. While Macrae gives it as pancreatic, the Life magazine article says it was prostate. A von Neumann biographer, Norman Macrae, has speculated: "It is plausible that in 1955 the then-fifty-one-year-old Johnny’s cancer sprang from his attendance at the 1946 Bikini nuclear tests."MacRae, p. 231.

Von Neumann died a year and a half later, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. under military security lest he reveal military secrets while heavily medicated. On his death bed, he entertained his brother with word-for-word recitations of the first few lines of each page of Goethe’s Faust. He was buried at Princeton Cemetery in Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey.John von Neumann at Find a Grave

While at Walter Reed, he invited a Roman Catholic priest, Father Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to visit him for consultation.The question of whether or not von Neumann had formally converted to Catholicism upon his marriage to Mariette Kövesi (who was Catholic) is addressed in Halmos, P.R. "The Legend of von Neumann", The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 80, No. 4. (April 1973), pp. 382–394. He was baptised Roman Catholic, but certainly was not a practicing member of that religion after his divorce. Von Neumann reportedly said in explanation that Pascal had a point, referring to Pascal’s wager.Marion Ledwig. , citing MacRae, p. 379. Father Strittmatter administered the last sacraments to him. Some of Von Neumann’s friends, having always known him as "competely agnostic", believed that his religious conversion was not genuine since it did not reflect his attitudes and thoughts when he was healthy. Even after his conversion, Father Strittmatter recalled that Von Neumann did not receive much peace or comfort from it as he still remained terrified of death.