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neumann, john von

John von Neumann

[noo-muhn, nyoo- for 1; noi-mahn, -muhn for 2]

John von Neumann (Hungarian: margittai Neumann János Lajos) (December 28, 1903February 8, 1957) was a Hungarian American mathematician who made major contributions to a vast range of fields, including set theory, functional analysis, quantum mechanics, ergodic theory, continuous geometry, economics and game theory, computer science, numerical analysis, hydrodynamics (of explosions), and statistics, as well as many other mathematical fields. He is generally regarded as one of the foremost mathematicians of the 20th century. The mathematician Jean Dieudonné called von Neumann "the last of the great mathematicians. Most notably, von Neumann was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics, a principal member of the Manhattan Project and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (as one of the few originally appointed), and a key figure in the development of game theory and the concepts of cellular automata and the universal constructor. Along with Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam, von Neumann worked out key steps in the nuclear physics involved in thermonuclear reactions and the hydrogen bomb.

Biography

The oldest of three brothers, von Neumann was born Neumann János Lajos (in Hungarian the family name comes first) in Budapest, Hungary, to a wealthy non-practicing Jewish family. His father was Neumann Miksa (Max Neumann), a lawyer who worked in a bank. His mother was Kann Margit (Margaret Kann). Von Neumann's ancestors had originally immigrated to Hungary from Russia.

János, nicknamed "Jancsi" (Johnny), was a prodigy who showed aptitudes for languages, memorization, and mathematics. He entered the German-speaking Lutheran Fasori Gimnázium in Budapest in the year 1911. Although he attended school at the grade level appropriate to his age, his father hired private tutors to give him advanced instruction in those areas in which he had displayed an aptitude. In 1913, his father was rewarded with ennoblement for his service to the Austro-Hungarian empire. (After becoming semi-autonomous in 1867 Hungary had found itself in need of a vibrant mercantile class.) The Neumann family thus acquiring the name margittai, Neumann János became margittai Neumann János (John Neumann of Margitta), what he later changed to the German Johann von Neumann. 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 his diploma in chemical engineering from the ETH Zurich in Switzerland at the behest of his father, who wanted his son to invest his time in a more financially viable endeavour than mathematics. Between 1926 and 1930 he taught as a privatdozent at the University of Berlin, the youngest in its history. By age 25 he had published 10 major papers, and by 30, nearly 36.

Max von Neumann died in 1929. In 1930 von Neumann, his mother, and his brothers emigrated to the United States. He anglicized Johann to John, keeping the Austrian-aristocratic surname of von Neumann, whereas his brothers adopted surnames Vonneumann and Neumann (using the de Neumann form briefly when first in the U.S.).

Von Neumann was invited to Princeton University, New Jersey in 1930, and, subsequently, was one of four people selected for the first faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study (two of the others were Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel), where he was a mathematics professor from its formation in 1933 until his death.

In 1937 von Neumann became a naturalized citizen of the US. In 1938 von Neumann was awarded the Bôcher Memorial Prize for his work in analysis.

Von Neumann married twice. He married Mariette Kövesi in 1930, just prior to emigrating to the United States. They had one daughter (von Neumann's only child), Marina, who is now a distinguished professor of international trade and public policy at the University of Michigan. The couple divorced in 1937. In 1938 von Neumann married Klari Dan, whom he had met during his last trips back to Budapest prior to the outbreak of World War II. The von Neumanns were very active socially within the Princeton academic community, and it is from this aspect of his life that many of the anecdotes which surround von Neumann's legend originate.

In 1955 von Neumann was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer, possibly caused by exposure to radiation during his witnessing of atomic bomb tests. Von Neumann died a year and a half following the initial diagnosis, in great pain. While at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., he invited a Roman Catholic priest, Father Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to visit him for consultation (a move which shocked some of von Neumann's friends). The priest then administered to him the last Sacraments. He died under military security lest he reveal military secrets while heavily medicated. John von Neumann was buried at Princeton Cemetery in Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey.

Von Neumann wrote 150 published papers in his life; 60 in pure mathematics, 20 in physics, and 60 in applied mathematics. His last work, published in book form as The Computer and the Brain, gives an indication of the direction of his interests at the time of his death.

Logic and set theory

The axiomatization of mathematics, on the model of Euclid's Elements, had reached new levels of rigor and breadth at the end of the 19th century, particularly in arithmetic (thanks to Richard Dedekind and Giuseppe Peano) and geometry (thanks to David Hilbert). At the beginning of the twentieth century, set theory, the new branch of mathematics discovered by Georg Cantor, and thrown into crisis by Bertrand Russell with the discovery of his famous paradox (on the set of all sets which do not belong to themselves), had not yet been formalized.

The problem of an adequate axiomatization of set theory was resolved implicitly about twenty years later (by Ernst Zermelo and Abraham Fraenkel) by way of a series of principles which allowed for the construction of all sets used in the actual practice of mathematics, but which did not explicitly exclude the possibility of the existence of sets which belong to themselves. In his doctoral thesis of 1925, von Neumann demonstrated how it was possible to exclude this possibility in two complementary ways: the axiom of foundation and the notion of class.

The axiom of foundation established that every set can be constructed from the bottom up in an ordered succession of steps by way of the principles of Zermelo and Fraenkel, in such a manner that if one set belongs to another then the first must necessarily come before the second in the succession (hence excluding the possibility of a set belonging to itself.) In order to demonstrate that the addition of this new axiom to the others did not produce contradictions, von Neumann introduced a method of demonstration (called the method of inner models) which later became an essential instrument in set theory.

The second approach to the problem took as its base the notion of class, and defines a set as a class which belongs to other classes, while a proper class is defined as a class which does not belong to other classes. Under the Zermelo/Fraenkel approach, the axioms impede the construction of a set of all sets which do not belong to themselves. In contrast, under the von Neumann approach, the class of all sets which do not belong to themselves can be constructed, but it is a proper class and not a set.

With this contribution of von Neumann, the axiomatic system of the theory of sets became fully satisfactory, and the next question was whether or not it was also definitive, and not subject to improvement. A strongly negative answer arrived in September 1930 at the historic mathematical Congress of Königsberg, in which Kurt Gödel announced his first theorem of incompleteness: the usual axiomatic systems are incomplete, in the sense that they cannot prove every truth which is expressible in their language. This result was sufficiently innovative as to confound the majority of mathematicians of the time. But von Neumann, who had participated at the Congress, confirmed his fame as an instantaneous thinker, and in less than a month was able to communicate to Gödel himself an interesting consequence of his theorem: namely that the usual axiomatic systems are unable to demonstrate their own consistency. It is precisely this consequence which has attracted the most attention, even if Gödel originally considered it only a curiosity, and had derived it independently anyway (it is for this reason that the result is called Gödel's second theorem, without mention of von Neumann.)

Quantum mechanics

At the International Congress of Mathematicians of 1900, David Hilbert presented his famous list of twenty-three problems considered central for the development of the mathematics of the new century. The sixth of these was the axiomatization of physical theories. Among the new physical theories of the century the only one which had yet to receive such a treatment by the end of the 1930s was quantum mechanics. QM found itself in a condition of foundational crisis similar to that of set theory at the beginning of the century, facing problems of both philosophical and technical natures. On the one hand, its apparent non-determinism had not been reduced to an explanation of a deterministic form. On the other, there still existed two independent but equivalent heuristic formulations, the so-called matrix mechanical formulation due to Werner Heisenberg and the wave mechanical formulation due to Erwin Schrödinger, but there was not yet a single, unified satisfactory theoretical formulation.

After having completed the axiomatization of set theory, von Neumann began to confront the axiomatization of QM. He immediately realized, in 1926, that a quantum system could be considered as a point in a so-called Hilbert space, analogous to the 6N dimension (N is the number of particles, 3 general coordinate and 3 canonical momentum for each) phase space of classical mechanics but with infinitely many dimensions (corresponding to the infinitely many possible states of the system) instead: the traditional physical quantities (e.g. position and momentum) could therefore be represented as particular linear operators operating in these spaces. The physics of quantum mechanics was thereby reduced to the mathematics of the linear Hermitian operators on Hilbert spaces. For example, the famous uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, according to which the determination of the position of a particle prevents the determination of its momentum and vice versa, is translated into the non-commutativity of the two corresponding operators. This new mathematical formulation included as special cases the formulations of both Heisenberg and Schrödinger, and culminated in the 1932 classic The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. However, physicists generally ended up preferring another approach to that of von Neumann (which was considered elegant and satisfactory by mathematicians). This approach was formulated in 1930 by Paul Dirac.

Von Neumann's abstract treatment permitted him also to confront the foundational issue of determinism vs. non-determinism and in the book he demonstrated a theorem according to which quantum mechanics could not possibly be derived by statistical approximation from a deterministic theory of the type used in classical mechanics. This demonstration contained a conceptual error, but it helped to inaugurate a line of research which, through the work of John Stuart Bell in 1964 on Bell's Theorem and the experiments of Alain Aspect in 1982, demonstrated that quantum physics requires a notion of reality substantially different from that of classical physics.

Economics and game theory

Up until the 1930s economics involved a great deal of mathematics and numbers, but almost all of this was either superficial or irrelevant. It was used, for the most part, to provide uselessly precise formulations and solutions to problems which were intrinsically vague. Economics found itself in a state similar to that of physics of the 17th century: still waiting for the development of an appropriate language in which to express and resolve its problems. While physics had found its language in the infinitesimal calculus, von Neumann proposed the language of game theory and a general equilibrium theory for economics.

His first significant contribution was the minimax theorem of 1928. This theorem establishes that in certain zero sum games involving perfect information (in which players know a priori the strategies of their opponents as well as their consequences), there exists one strategy which allows both players to minimize their maximum losses (hence the name minimax). When examining every possible strategy, a player must consider all the possible responses of the player's adversary and the maximum loss. The player then plays out the strategy which will result in the minimization of this maximum loss. Such a strategy, which minimizes the maximum loss, is called optimal for both players just in case their minimaxes are equal (in absolute value) and contrary (in sign). If the common value is zero, the game becomes pointless.

Von Neumann eventually improved and extended the minimax theorem to include games involving imperfect information and games with more than two players. This work culminated in the 1944 classic Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (written with Oskar Morgenstern). The public interest in this work was such that The New York Times ran a front page story, something which only Einstein had previously elicited.

Von Neumann's second important contribution in this area was the solution, in 1937, of a problem first described by Léon Walras in 1874, the existence of situations of equilibrium in mathematical models of market development based on supply and demand. He first recognized that such a model should be expressed through disequations and not equations, and then he found a solution to Walras' problem by applying a fixed-point theorem derived from the work of L. E. J. Brouwer. The lasting importance of the work on general equilibria and the methodology of fixed point theorems is underscored by the awarding of Nobel prizes in 1972 to Kenneth Arrow, in 1983 to Gerard Debreu, and in 1994 to John Nash who had improved von Neumann's theory in his Princeton Ph.D thesis.

Von Neumann was also the inventor of the method of proof, used in game theory, known as backward induction (which he first published in 1944 in the book co-authored with Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour).

Nuclear weapons

Beginning in the late 1930s von Neumann began to take more of an interest in applied (as opposed to pure) mathematics. In particular, he developed an expertise in explosions—phenomena which are difficult to model mathematically. This led him to a large number of military consultancies, primarily for the Navy, which in turn led to his involvement in the Manhattan Project. The involvement included frequent trips by train to the project's secret research facilities in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Von Neumann's principal contribution to the atomic bomb itself was in the concept and design of the explosive lenses needed to compress the plutonium core of the Trinity test device and the "Fat Man" weapon that was later dropped on Nagasaki. While von Neumann did not originate the "implosion" concept, he was one of its most persistent proponents, encouraging its continued development against the instincts of many of his colleagues, who felt such a design to be unworkable. The lens shape design work was completed by July 1944.

In a visit to Los Alamos in September 1944, von Neumann showed that the pressure increase from explosion shock wave reflection from solid objects was greater than previously believed if the angle of incidence of the shock wave was between 90° and some limiting angle. As a result, it was determined that the effectiveness of an atomic bomb would be enhanced with detonation some kilometers above the target, rather than at ground level.

Beginning in the spring of 1945, along with four other scientists and various military personnel, von Neumann was included in the target selection committee responsible for choosing the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the first targets of the atomic bomb. Von Neumann oversaw computations related to the expected size of the bomb blasts, estimated death tolls, and the distance above the ground at which the bombs should be detonated for optimum shock wave propagation and thus maximum effect. The cultural capital Kyoto, which had been spared the firebombing inflicted upon militarily significant target cities like Tokyo in World War II, was von Neumann's first choice, a selection seconded by Manhattan Project leader General Leslie Groves. However, this target was dismissed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had been impressed with the city during a visit while Governor General of the Philippines.

On July 16, 1945, with numerous other Los Alamos personnel, von Neumann was an eyewitness to the first atomic bomb blast, conducted as a test of the implosion method device, 35 miles (56 km) southeast of Socorro, New Mexico. Based on his observation alone, von Neumann estimated the test had resulted in a blast equivalent to 5 kilotons of TNT, but Enrico Fermi produced a more accurate estimate of 10 kilotons by dropping scraps of torn-up paper as the shock wave passed his location and watching how far they scattered. The actual power of the explosion had been between 20 and 22 kilotons.

After the war, Robert Oppenheimer remarked that the physicists involved in the Manhattan project had "known sin". Von Neumann's response was that "sometimes someone confesses a sin in order to take credit for it".

Von Neumann continued unperturbed in his work and became, along with Edward Teller, one of those who sustained the hydrogen bomb project. He then collaborated with Klaus Fuchs on further development of the bomb, and in 1946 the two filed a secret patent on "Improvement in Methods and Means for Utilizing Nuclear Energy", which outlined a scheme for using a fission bomb to compress fusion fuel to initiate a thermonuclear reaction. (Herken, pp. 171, 374). Though this was not the key to the hydrogen bomb — the Teller-Ulam design — it was judged to be a move in the right direction.

Computer science

Von Neumann's hydrogen bomb work was also played out in the realm of computing, where he and Stanislaw Ulam developed simulations on von Neumann's digital computers for the hydrodynamic computations. During this time he contributed to the development of the Monte Carlo method, which allowed complicated problems to be approximated using random numbers. Because using lists of "truly" random numbers was extremely slow for the ENIAC, von Neumann developed a form of making pseudorandom numbers, using the middle-square method. Though this method has been criticized as crude, von Neumann was aware of this: he justified it as being faster than any other method at his disposal, and also noted that when it went awry it did so obviously, unlike methods which could be subtly incorrect.

While consulting for the Moore School of Electrical Engineering on the EDVAC project, von Neumann wrote an incomplete set of notes titled the First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. The paper, which was widely distributed, described a computer architecture in which data and program memory are mapped into the same address space. This architecture became the de facto standard and can be contrasted with a so-called Harvard architecture, which has separate program and data memories on a separate bus. Although the single-memory architecture became commonly known by the name von Neumann architecture as a result of von Neumann's paper, the architecture's conception involved the contributions of others, including J. Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly, inventors of the ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania. With very few exceptions, all present-day home computers, microcomputers, minicomputers and mainframe computers use this single-memory computer architecture.

Von Neumann also created the field of cellular automata without the aid of computers, constructing the first self-replicating automata with pencil and graph paper. The concept of a universal constructor was fleshed out in his posthumous work Theory of Self Reproducing Automata. Von Neumann proved that the most effective way of performing large-scale mining operations such as mining an entire moon or asteroid belt would be by using self-replicating machines, taking advantage of their exponential growth.

He is credited with at least one contribution to the study of algorithms. Donald Knuth cites von Neumann as the inventor, in 1945, of the merge sort algorithm, in which the first and second halves of an array are each sorted recursively and then merged together. His algorithm for simulating a fair coin with a biased coin is used in the "software whitening" stage of some hardware random number generators.

He also engaged in exploration of problems in numerical hydrodynamics. With R. D. Richtmyer he developed an algorithm defining artificial viscosity that improved the understanding of shock waves. It is possible that we would not understand much of astrophysics, and might not have highly developed jet and rocket engines without that work. The problem was that when computers solve hydrodynamic or aerodynamic problems, they try to put too many computational grid points at regions of sharp discontinuity (shock waves). The artificial viscosity was a mathematical trick to slightly smooth the shock transition without sacrificing basic physics.

Politics and social affairs

Von Neumann obtained at the age of 29 one of the first five professorships at the new Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey (another had gone to Albert Einstein). He was a frequent consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States Army, the RAND Corporation, Standard Oil, IBM, and others.

Throughout his life von Neumann had a respect and admiration for business and government leaders; something which was often at variance with the inclinations of his scientific colleagues. He enjoyed associating with persons in positions of power, and this led him into government service.

As President of the Von Neumann Committee for Missiles, and later as a member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, from 1953 until his death in 1957, he was influential in setting U.S. scientific and military policy. Through his committee, he developed various scenarios of nuclear proliferation, the development of intercontinental and submarine missiles with atomic warheads, and the controversial strategic equilibrium called mutual assured destruction (aka the M.A.D. doctrine). During a Senate committee hearing he described his political ideology as "violently anti-communist, and much more militaristic than the norm".

Von Neumann's interest in meteorological prediction led him to propose manipulating the environment by spreading colorants on the polar ice caps in order to enhance absorption of solar radiation (by reducing the albedo), thereby raising global temperatures. He also favored a preemptive nuclear attack on the USSR, believing that doing so could prevent it from obtaining the atomic bomb.

Personality

Although von Neumann invariably wore a conservative grey flannel business suit, he enjoyed throwing large parties at his home in Princeton, occasionally twice a week. Despite being a notoriously bad driver, he nonetheless enjoyed driving (frequently while reading a book) - occasioning numerous arrests as well as accidents. He once reported one of his car accidents in this way: "I was proceeding down the road. The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles per hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path. (The von Neumanns would return to Princeton at the beginning of each academic year with a new car.)

A committed hedonist, von Neumann liked to eat and drink heavily; his wife, Klara, said that he could count everything except calories. He enjoyed yiddish and "off-color" humor (especially limericks) and could make very insensitive jokes (for example: "bodily violence is a displeasure done with the intention of giving pleasure"). Von Neumann persistently gazed at the legs of young women (so much so that female secretaries at Los Alamos often covered up the exposed undersides of their desks with cardboard).

Honors

The John von Neumann Theory Prize of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS, previously TIMS-ORSA) is awarded annually to an individual (or group) who have made fundamental and sustained contributions to theory in operations research and the management sciences.

The IEEE John von Neumann Medal is awarded annually by the IEEE "for outstanding achievements in computer-related science and technology."

The John von Neumann Lecture is given annually at the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) by a researcher who has contributed to applied mathematics, and the chosen lecturer is also awarded a monetary prize.

Von Neumann, a crater on Earth's Moon, is named after John von Neumann.

The John von Neumann Computing Center in Princeton, New Jersey was named in his honour.

The professional society of Hungarian computer scientists, John von Neumann Computer Society, is named after John von Neumann

On May 4, 2005 the United States Postal Service issued the American Scientists commemorative postage stamp series, a set of four 37-cent self-adhesive stamps in several configurations. The scientists depicted were John von Neumann, Barbara McClintock, Josiah Willard Gibbs, and Richard Feynman.

The John von Neumann Award of the Rajk László College for Advanced Studies was named in his honour, and is given every year from 1995 to professors, who had on outstanding contribution at the field of exact social sciences, and through their work they had a heavy influence to the professional development and thinking of the members of the college.

See also

Students

Works by von Neumann

Biographical material

  • Norman Macrae, 1999. John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More. Reprinted by the American Mathematical Society.
  • Aspray, William, 1990. John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing.
  • Chiara, Dalla, Maria Luisa and Giuntini, Roberto 1997, La Logica Quantistica in Boniolo, Giovani, ed., Filosofia della Fisica (Philosophy of Physics). Bruno Mondadori.
  • Goldstine, Herman, 1980. The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann.
  • Halmos, Paul R., 1985. I Want To Be A Mathematician Springer-Verlag
  • Hashagen, Ulf, 2006: Johann Ludwig Neumann von Margitta (1903-1957). Teil 1: Lehrjahre eines jüdischen Mathematikers während der Zeit der Weimarer Republik. In: Informatik-Spektrum 29 (2), S. 133-141.
  • Hashagen, Ulf, 2006: Johann Ludwig Neumann von Margitta (1903-1957). Teil 2: Ein Privatdozent auf dem Weg von Berlin nach Princeton. In: Informatik-Spektrum 29 (3), S. 227-236.
  • Heim, Steve J., 1980. John von Neumann and Norbert Weiner: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death MIT Press
  • Poundstone, William. Prisoner's Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory and the Puzzle of the Bomb. 1992.
  • Redei, Miklos (ed.), 2005 John von Neumann: Selected Letters American Mathematical Society
  • Ulam, Stanisław, 1983. Adventures of a Mathematician Scribner's
  • Vonneuman, Nicholas A. John von Neumann as Seen by His Brother ISBN 0-9619681-0-9
  • 1958, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 64.
  • 1990. Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society Symposia in Pure Mathematics 50.
  • John von Neumann 1903-1957, biographical memoir by S. Bochner, National Academy of Sciences, 1958

Popular periodicals

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Notes

References

  • Herken, Gregg (2002). Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller.
  • Slater, Robert Portraits in Silicon.

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