John von Neumann: Wikis


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John von Neumann

John von Neumann in the 1940s
Born December 28, 1903(1903-12-28)
Budapest, Austria-Hungary
Died February 8, 1957 (aged 53)
Washington, D.C., United States
Residence United States
Nationality Hungarian and American
Ethnicity JewishHungarian
Fields Mathematics and computer science
Institutions University of Berlin
Princeton University
Institute for Advanced Study
Site Y, Los Alamos
Alma mater University of Pázmány Péter
ETH Zürich
Doctoral advisor Leopold Fejér
Doctoral students Donald B. Gillies
Israel Halperin
John P. Mayberry
Other notable students Paul Halmos
Clifford Hugh Dowker
Known for von Neumann Equation
Game theory
von Neumann algebras
von Neumann architecture
Von Neumann bicommutant theorem
Von Neumann cellular automaton
Von Neumann universal constructor
Von Neumann entropy
Von Neumann regular ring
Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory
Von Neumann universe
Von Neumann conjecture
Von Neumann's inequality
Stone–von Neumann theorem
Von Neumann stability analysis
Minimax theorem
Von Neumann extractor
Von Neumann ergodic theorem
Direct integral
Notable awards Enrico Fermi Award (1956)
Quantum mechanics
\Delta x\, \Delta p \ge \frac{\hbar}{2}
Uncertainty principle
Introduction · Mathematical formulation

John von Neumann (December 28, 1903 – February 8, 1957) was a Hungarian American mathematician who made major contributions to a vast range of fields,[1] 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 greatest mathematicians in modern history.[2] The mathematician Jean Dieudonné called von Neumann "the last of the great mathematicians",[3] while Peter Lax described him as possessing the most "fearsome technical prowess" and "scintillating intellect" of the century.[4] Even in Budapest, in the time that produced geniuses like Szilárd (b. 1898), Wigner (b. 1902), and Teller (b. 1908), his brilliance stood out.[5]

Von Neumann was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics, in the development of functional analysis, 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[1][6] and the concepts of cellular automata[1] 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.



The eldest of three brothers, von Neumann was born Neumann János Lajos (in Hungarian the family name comes first) on December 28, 1903 in Budapest, Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a wealthy Jewish family.[7] 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 child prodigy who showed an aptitude for languages, memorization, and mathematics. By the age of six, he could exchange jokes in Classical Greek, memorise telephone directories, and displayed prodigious mental calculation abilities.[8] He entered the German-speaking Lutheran Fasori Gimnázium in Budapest in 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. Recognised as a mathematical prodigy, at the age of 15 he began to study under Gábor Szegő. On their first meeting, Szegő was so impressed with the boy's mathematical talent that he was brought to tears.[9] 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 title margittai, Neumann János became margittai Neumann János (John Neumann of Margitta), which 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.[1] He simultaneously earned his diploma in chemical engineering from the ETH Zurich in Switzerland[1] 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 ten major papers, and by 30, nearly 36.[citation needed]

Max von Neumann died in 1929. In 1930, von Neumann, his mother, and his brothers emigrated to the United States. He anglicized his first name 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 the first four people selected for the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study (two of the others being Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel), where he remained 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.

Gravestone of John von Neumann

In 1955, von Neumann was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer.[10] While he was in the hospital he wrote a short monograph, The Computer and the Brain, observing that the basic computing hardware of the brain indicated a different methodology than the one used in developing the computer. Von Neumann died a year and a half later, 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).[11] The priest then administered to him the last Sacraments.[12] 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.[13]

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. Quantum mechanics 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 quantum mechanics. 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

Von Neumann's first significant contribution to economics was the minimax theorem of 1928. This theorem establishes that in certain zero sum games with perfect information (i.e., in which players know at each time all moves that have taken place so far), there exists a strategy for each player 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 Gérard 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).[14]

Nuclear weapons

John von Neumann's wartime Los Alamos ID badge photo.

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.[1]

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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[15]

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 the data and the program are both stored in the computer's memory in the same address space. This architecture became the de facto standard until technology enabled more advanced architectures. The earliest computers were 'programmed' by altering the electronic circuitry. Although the single-memory, stored program architecture became commonly known by the name von Neumann architecture as a result of von Neumann's paper, the architecture's description was based on the work of J. Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly, inventors of the ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] His algorithm for simulating a fair coin with a biased coin[21] 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.[22]

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. 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.[23]


Von Neumann invariably wore a conservative grey flannel business suit - he was even known to play tennis wearing his business suit - and he enjoyed throwing large parties at his home in Princeton, occasionally twice a week.[24] Despite being a notoriously bad driver, he nonetheless enjoyed driving (frequently while reading a book) - occasioning numerous arrests as well as accidents. He 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."[25] (The von Neumanns would return to Princeton at the beginning of each academic year with a new car.) It was said of him at Princeton that, while he was indeed a demigod, he had made a detailed study of humans and could imitate them perfectly.[26]

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).[12]


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.

The crater Von Neumann on the Moon is named after him.

The John von Neumann Computing Center in Princeton, New Jersey (40°20′55″N 74°35′32″W / 40.348695°N 74.592251°W / 40.348695; -74.592251 (John von Neumann Computing Center)) was named in his honour.

The professional society of Hungarian computer scientists, John von Neumann Computer Society, is named after John von Neumann.[27]

On February 15, 1956, Neumann was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Dwight Eisenhower.

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.

Selected works

  • Jean van Heijenoort, 1967. A Source Book in Mathematical Logic, 1879-1931. Harvard Univ. Press.
    • 1923. On the introduction of transfinite numbers, 346-54.
    • 1925. An axiomatization of set theory, 393-413.
  • 1932. Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Beyer, R. T., trans., Princeton Univ. Press. 1996 edition: ISBN 0-691-02893-1
  • 1944. (with Oskar Morgenstern) Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Princeton Univ. Press. 2007 edition: ISBN 978-0-691-13061-3
  • 1966. (with Arthur W. Burks) Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. Univ. of Illinois Press.[19]
  • 1963. Collected Works of John von Neumann, 6 Volumes. Pergamon Press

See also

PhD Students

Biographical material

  • 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
  • Macrae, Norman, 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.
  • 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


  1. ^ a b c d e f Ed Regis (1992-11-08). "Johnny Jiggles the Planet". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-04. 
  2. ^ The Legacy of John von Neumann, James Glimm, John Impagliazzo, Isadore Manuel Singer, (American Mathematical Society 1990), vii
  3. ^ Dictionary of Scientific Bibliography, ed. C. C. Gillispie, Scibners, 1981
  4. ^ The Legacy of John von Neumann, James Glimm, John Impagliazzo, Isadore Manuel Singer, (American Mathematical Society 1990), 7
  5. ^ Doran, p. 2
  6. ^ Nelson, David (2003). The Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics. London: Penguin. pp. 178–179. ISBN 0-141-01077-0. 
  7. ^ Doran, p. 1
  8. ^ William Poundstone, Prisoner's dilemma (Oxford, 1993), introduction
  9. ^ The Legacy of John von Neumann, James Glimm, John Impagliazzo, Isadore Manuel Singer, (American Mathematical Society 1990), page 5
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ The question of whether or not von Neumann had formally converted to Catholicism upon his marriage to Mariette Kövesi (who was Catholic) is addressed by Halmos (ref. 5). He was baptised Roman Catholic but he certainly was not a practicing member of that religion after his divorce.
  12. ^ a b Halmos, P.R. The Legend of Von Neumann, The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 80, No. 4. (Apr., 1973), pp. 382-394
  13. ^ John von Neumann at Find a Grave[1]
  14. ^ John MacQuarrie. "Mathematics and Chess". School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland. Retrieved 2007-10-18. "Others claim he used a method of proof, known as 'backwards induction' that was not employed until 1953, by von Neumann and Morgenstern. Ken Binmore (1992) writes, Zermelo used this method way back in 1912 to analyze Chess. It requires starting from the end of the game and then working backwards to its beginning. (p.32)" 
  15. ^ a b Lillian Hoddeson ... . With contributions from Gordon Baym ...; "Lillian Hoddeson, Paul W. Henriksen, Roger A. Meade, Catherine Westfall (1993). Critical Assembly: A Technical History of Los Alamos during the Oppenheimer Years, 1943-1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-44132-3. 
  16. ^ Rhodes, Richard (1986). The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Touchstone Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-81378-5. 
  17. ^ Groves, Leslie (1962). Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project. New York: Da Capo. ISBN 0-306-80189-2. 
  18. ^ The mistaken name for the architecture is discussed in John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer, part of the online ENIAC museum, in Robert Slater's computer history book, Portraits in Silicon, and in Nancy Stern's book From ENIAC to UNIVAC .
  19. ^ a b von Neumann, John (1966). "Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata." (Scanned book online). Retrieved 2007-01-18. 
  20. ^ Knuth, Donald (1998). The Art of Computer Programming: Volume 3 Sorting and Searching. Boston: Addison-Wesley. pp. 159. ISBN 0-201-89685-0. 
  21. ^ von Neumann, John (1951). "Various techniques used in connection with random digits". National Bureau of Standards Applied Math Series 12: 36. 
  22. ^ see MAA documentary, especially comments by Morgenstern regarding this aspect of von Neumann's personality
  23. ^ See, e.g., Macrae page 332 and Heims, pages 236 - 247.
  24. ^ See Macrae pp. 170 -171
  25. ^ "John von Neumann" (in English). Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  26. ^ Goldstine, Herman H. (1972). The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-691-02367-0. 
  27. ^ "Introducing the John von Neumann Computer Society". John von Neumann Computer Society. Retrieved 2008-05-20. 
  28. ^ a b c "Mathematics Genealogy Project: John (Janos) Von Neumann". Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  29. ^ While Israel Halperin's thesis advisor is often listed as Salomon Bochner, this may be because "Professors at the university direct doctoral theses but those at the Institute do not. Unaware of this, in 1934 I asked von Neumann if he would direct my doctoral thesis. He replied Yes." (Israel Halperin, "The Extraordinary Inspiration of John von Neumann", Proceedings of Symposia in Pure Mathematics, vol. 50 (1990), pp. 15-17).


This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which is licensed under the GFDL.

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Truth is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.

John von Neumann (28 December 19038 February 1957) was a Hungarian-American-German-Jewish Catholic mathematician and computer scientist, generally regarded as one of the foremost mathematicians of the 20th century.


In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
You wake me up early in the morning to tell me that I'm right? Please wait until I'm wrong.
  • Any one who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin. For, as has been pointed out several times, there is no such thing as a random number — there are only methods to produce random numbers, and a strict arithmetic procedure of course is not such a method.
    • On mistaking pseudorandom number generators for being truly "random" — this quote is often erroneously interpreted to mean that von Neumann was against the use of pseudorandom numbers, when in reality he was cautioning about misunderstanding their true nature while advocating their use. From "Various techniques used in connection with random digits" by John von Neumann in Monte Carlo Method (1951) edited by A.S. Householder, G.E. Forsythe, and H.H. Germond
  • It is exceptional that one should be able to acquire the understanding of a process without having previously acquired a deep familiarity with running it, with using it, before one has assimilated it in an instinctive and empirical way... Thus any discussion of the nature of intellectual effort in any field is difficult, unless it presupposes an easy, routine familiarity with that field. In mathematics this limitation becomes very severe.
    • As quoted in "The Mathematician" in The World of Mathematics (1956), by James Roy Newman.
  • You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one really knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.
    • Suggesting to Claude Shannon a name for his new uncertainty function, as quoted in Scientific American Vol. 225 No. 3, (1971), p. 180
  • Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
    • Reply to Felix T. Smith who had said "I'm afraid I don't understand the method of characteristics." —as quoted in The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1984) by Gary Zukav footnote in page 208.
  • The goys have proven the following theorem...
    • Statement at the start of a classroom lecture, as quoted in 1,911 Best Things Anyone Ever Said (1988) by Robert Byrne
  • Truth is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.
    • As quoted in Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws: Minutes from an Infinite Paradise (1991) by Manfred Schroder
  • A large part of mathematics which becomes useful developed with absolutely no desire to be useful, and in a situation where nobody could possibly know in what area it would become useful; and there were no general indications that it ever would be so. By and large it is uniformly true in mathematics that there is a time lapse between a mathematical discovery and the moment when it is useful; and that this lapse of time can be anything from 30 to 100 years, in some cases even more; and that the whole system seems to function without any direction, without any reference to usefulness, and without any desire to do things which are useful.
    • As quoted in Out of the Mouths of Mathematicians: A Quotation Book for Philomaths (1993) by R. Schmalz.
  • The calculus was the first achievement of modern mathematics and it is difficult to overestimate its importance. I think it defines more unequivocally than anything else the inception of modern mathematics; and the system of mathematical analysis, which is its logical development, still constitutes the greatest technical advance in exact thinking.
    • As quoted in Single Variable Calculus (1994) by James Stewart.
    • As quoted in Bigeometric Calculus: A System with a Scale-Free Derivative (1983) by Michael Grossman.

Quotes about von Neumann

  • The only student of mine I was ever intimidated by. He was so quick. There was a seminar for advanced students in Zürich that I was teaching and von Neumann was in the class. I came to a certain theorem, and I said it is not proved and it may be difficult. Von Neumann didn't say anything but after five minutes he raised his hand. When I called on him he went to the blackboard and proceeded to write down the proof. After that I was afraid of von Neumann.

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Simple English

John von Neumann
John von Neumann in the 1940s
BornDecember 28, 1903(1903-12-28)
Budapest, Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy
DiedFebruary 8, 1957 (aged 53)
Washington, D.C., United States
ResidenceUnited States

John von Neumann (December 28, 1903February 8, 1957) was an American mathematician who made contributions to many fields including:

He is generally regarded as one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th century.[1]

He also was one of the first to propose the idea of self replicating machines. This is why a machine that can replicate itself is now commonly referred to as a Von Neumann Machine



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