Book review: ‘The Man from the Future’ by Ananyo Bhattacharya
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A new account of the visionary but often overlooked life of John von Neumann.
“Call me Johnny” would be the extrovert words that greeted guests at his lavish parties, social events that seemed to be completely at odds with our expectations of how a genius mathematician should behave. In fact, one of the reasons Neumann János Lajos – John von Neumann – is such an endlessly fascinating subject for the modern biographer (as well as the reader of so-called works of popular science), is that contrast.
Apart from being one of the finest minds of the 20th century, von Neumann was also idiosyncratic and entertaining. For any commentator, the challenge is always one of painting the dual portrait of visionary thinker and eccentric professor stereotype with credible balance. In ‘The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann’ (Allen Lane, £20 ISBN 9780241398852), Ananyo Bhattacharya does just that, guiding us through the ideas that built the modern world while making sense of the man behind them: an aristocratic Hungarian émigré in a sharp suit with a voice like Bela Lugosi.
The reason we don’t know more about von Neumann is that the non-scientific public is already satisfied with its mad professor archetype of Albert Einstein. This seems something of an injustice to Bhattacharya, an author with an academic background in science and also, crucially for the success of ‘The Man from the Future’, experience as contributor to titles such as The Economist and Nature.
The reader can’t help feeling that it is the author’s journalistic instincts that have led him to straighten the record for a mathematician who had once been “as famous as it is possible for a mathematician to be” yet - when compared with his Princeton associates Einstein and Gödel - has now “faded from view.” Given that the man’s work informs “how we think of ourselves as a species… and the machines that could elevate us to imaginable heights or destroy us completely,” it’s time to take another look at von Neumann’s life and work that ultimately led to the digitalisation of the 21st century.
Once you get past the apparent contradiction between von Neumann’s easy-going avuncularity and the intensity of his intellect, what you are left with is something even more interesting, a man whose “thinking is so pertinent to the challenges we face today that it is tempting to wonder if he was a time traveller, quietly seeding ideas that he knew would be needed to shape the Earth’s future.”
These concepts have found their way into the computers in our pockets and artificial intelligence, game theory and evolutionary biology, nanotechnology and nuclear weaponry. The paradox is of course that to achieve such things von Neumann needed to live in a world that had not yet experienced a fully digitalised transformation, and Bhattacharya provides the historical context for this moment on the technological timeline with a professional historian’s authority. Brilliant.
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