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Johnny von Neumann

In the early years of this century, it was considered quite acceptable in Hungary for first-rate mathematicians to teach schoolchildren. Partly in consequence, Hungary produced a flock of first-rate mathematical talents, not the least of whom was John von Neumann (the "von" being an affectation of nobility that he alone in his family maintained).

Von Neuman was a mathematician, a calculator (it is said that during the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, whenever an impromptu numerical result was needed, Dick Feynman would pound out the result on mechanical calculator, Fermi (?) would work it out on a on a slide rule, and von Neumann would work it out in his head... all three usually arriving at the about the same result at about the same time) and -- somewhat unusually for a person of such talents -- a man somewhat adept at power politics and engineering: He was the first and last man to run a significant engineering project (building an early computer, no less) at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies, more usually understood as an intellectual graveyard for burned-out scientists (e.g., Kurt Godel starved himself to death there, convinced that the cooks were trying to poison him).

Von Neumann had a mind so quick that he inspired something like Isaac Newton's curious demigod impression on his contemporaries, but -- possibly due in part to being a bon vivant and ladies man, along with working usually in collaboration rather than alone -- left a considerably less distinctive body of work: He is perhaps best known for his work establishing game theory, applied during WW II to anti-submarine warfare and leading later to the basic playing algorithm for perfect-information two-person games such as chess.

A biography of von Neuman in conjunction with Norbert Wiener, a favorite collaborator:

John von neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death Steve J Heims ISBN 0-262-08105-9

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