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The Villages
Tuesday, March 28, 2023

John von Neumann, father of the computer revolution

By Gabe Mirkin, MD

 John von Neumann made major discoveries in more different fields of mathematics than any other mathematician in the history of the world. During World War II, he was the person most responsible for the method used to detonate the atom bomb. After WW II, he started the whole computer revolution and his breakthroughs lead to the construction of the first stored- program computer. He worked with Allan Turing to make modern computers more efficient in storing programs and data. He was one of the first people to use computers to solve problems with complex mathematical equations. He used computers to help build the hydrogen bomb. He established Game Theory, developed computer games, defined ordinal numbers mathematically, was one of the first to explain quantum mechanics, and developed what is known as Minimax Theory. He was in charge of the world’s first numerical weather forecasts on his ENIAC computer. His mathematical analysis of the structure of self-replication was directly responsible for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

He had such an incredible photographic memory and could solve problems in his head and at such dazzling speed that Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe said: “I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man”. During the building of the atom bomb, other scientists in the Manhattan Project joked that the Hungarians (von Neumann, Edward Teller, Leo Szilárd, John Kemény and others) were so smart that they must be Martians and they were speaking Hungarian as a cover.

Incredible Parents
Von Neumann was born in 1903 to wealthy Hungarian Jewish parents. His father, Max Neumann, must have been an extraordinary individual because he moved from the Jewish community in Pecs to the cosmopolitan city of Budapest where he obtained a doctorate of laws degree and became a banker. In 1913, he was made a member of the nobility for his service to the Austro-Hungarian empire by Emperor Franz Josef, and the family name eventually was changed from Neumann to von Neumann. Some reports say that he bought his nobility.

Early Excellence
John von Neumann’s brilliance was evident at a very early age. He was schooled by private tutors and by age six, he was fluent in Latin and ancient Greek. He loved ancient history. By age eight he had mastered calculus. At age 22, he received his Ph.D. in mathematics (with minors in physics and chemistry) from Pázmány Péter University in Budapest. At the same time he received a degree in chemical engineering in Zurich. From 1926 to 1930, he became the youngest person ever to teach at the University of Berlin and averaged a major paper every month.

In 1930 he went to Princeton University and three years later, at age 29, he was appointed to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he worked with Albert Einstein and Oswald Veblen. He consulted on the building of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos and developed the technique used to detonate the bomb. Two of the geniuses who worked on the project with him later became professors at Harvard, where I took courses in the complex variable with Garrett Birkhoff and physical chemistry with George Kistiakowsky.

On July 16, 1945, he watched the explosion of the first atomic bomb in Socorro, New Mexico. He loved the United States and hated Fascism and Communism. He served as a member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission from 1953 until his death in 1957. He also consulted for the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States Army, the RAND Corporation, Standard Oil, General Electric and IBM.
Personal Life of Excess
In 1930, he married Mariette Kovesi, whom he had known since his early childhood. In 1935, they had a daughter, Marina who is a professor of international trade and public policy at the University of Michigan. In 1936 they broke up and Mariette returned to Budapest. The next year, he went to Budapest, and renewed old ties with Klara Dan, whom he had known since before World War II and they were married in 1938. At Princeton, they lived in the largest house in their neighborhood and gave parties as often as twice a week. Their neighbors, including Einstein, complained about the extremely loud German marching music he played on his gramophone. He liked to work in noisy places and refused to work in a quiet study that his wife prepared for him. Instead he worked in the living room while watching television.

He was an impeccable dresser and would always wear formal suits. At his 1926 oral exam for his Ph.D, Mathematician David Hilbert asked him: “Pray, who is the candidate’s tailor?” He once rode a mule down the Grand Canyon while he was wearing a three-piece suit.

He often drank more than he should. In his Berlin days in the 1920s, he would solve complicated mathematical problems while he was drunk. He often ate way too much and was overweight. His wife, Klara, said that he could count everything except calories.

He received numerous traffic tickets, had several serious traffic accidents, and was known to drive a car and read a book at the same time. He had what has been described as an Eastern European sense of humor. An example: a convict was playing cards with his jailers and when they found that he was cheating, they kicked him out of jail.

A Horribly Painful End
In 1955, von Neumann was diagnosed with cancer and died a year and a half later at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In his last months he screamed constantly from the severe bone pain caused by his cancer. The Army stationed military guards outside his hospital room because of concern that he could reveal military secrets as he babbled in Hungarian and many other languages under the influence of pain medications.

He was born of Jewish parents but never was religious. In 1930, he agreed to convert to Catholicism so he could marry Mariette Kovesi, but he was never a practicing Catholic. Von Neumann was aware of Pascal’s Wager: man has nothing to lose by believing in God, because if there is an afterlife, you gain afterlife by believing in God, while if there is no afterlife, you lose nothing by believing in God. At Walter Reed, he requested a Roman Catholic priest to administer last sacraments to him. His friends were surprised as they had always known that he was not religious. However, the priest stated that he gave von Neumann neither peace nor comfort, and he remained terrified of death. During his last moments he recited Goethe’s Faust from memory. He died on February 8, 1957 and is buried at Princeton Cemetery in New Jersey.

Did Radiation Exposure Lead to his Death?
Von Neumann’s many biographies list prostate, pancreatic, bone and brain cancers as the causes of his death. Cancer does not kill just because it is cancer; it kills by destroying other tissues. For example, breast cancer does not kill when the cancer is in the breast. It kills when it spreads from the breast to the brain, liver, lungs, bones or other vital tissues and destroys them.

Excessive exposure to radiation is a strong risk factor for many types of cancers. Von Neumann was present at nuclear tests both at Los Alamos and at the Operation Crossroads test on Bikini Atoll in 1946. He is most likely to have died from primary prostate cancer that spread to his bones and brain. The most common cancer caused by nuclear radiation is cancer of the bone marrow, but he was unlikely to have suffered from primary bone cancer because it virtually never spreads to the pancreas or prostate. Brain cancer also does not typically spread to the pancreas or the prostate. He is unlikely to have had primary pancreatic cancer because pancreatic cancer rarely metastasizes to the brain.

Prostate cancer was most likely to have been his primary cancer because when it metastasizes, it usually goes to the bones and brain. The exposure to radiation would help to explain his death from prostate cancer at such a very young age. His lifestyle probably also contributed since excess drinking, overeating, lack of exercise and being overweight are all associated with increased risk for prostate cancer. We will never be certain of the cause, but the world lost perhaps its greatest mathematician when he was only 53 years old.

 Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com


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