The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann by Ananyo Bhattacharya - review by John Gribbin

John Gribbin

1921: A Space Odyssey

The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

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Allen Lane 272pp £20 order from our bookshop
 

John von Neumann is widely regarded by scientists as the greatest genius born in the 20th century. A combination of his intellect and his Hungarian origins (he started life, in 1903, as Neumann János Lajos) led colleagues jokingly to refer to him as a Martian or a time traveller from the future. He made seminal contributions to mathematics, quantum theory, the development of nuclear weapons, the birth of the modern computer, game theory and evolutionary biology, while living through the turbulent decades involving two hot wars and one cold war. Yet to the wider public he is not as well known as these achievements justify – certainly not as well known as Richard Feynman, although von Neumann was an equally colourful character. Ananyo Bhattacharya attempts to rectify this, and succeeds on one level while just missing the target on another.

The success is in the science. Bhattacharya is a first-class science writer with an impeccable pedigree, embracing stints at The Economist and Nature, and he does the best job I have seen of explaining the significance of von Neumann’s work across many different fields. Such, however, is his

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