Criticism of Ananyo Bhattacharya: The Man of the Future


Königsberg in September 1930, to hear Kurt Gödel announce that Hilbert’s great program to put mathematics on a solid foundation is impossible, and he proved it.

Maybe my character could also catch Alan Turing at Princeton where he corrects the evidence of On calculable numbers several years later? And having free access to the RAND Corporation in the 1940s as it pursued systems analysis and nuclear deterrence as a branch of game theory? We are surely extending the plausibility now.

And yet the fiction is redundant. One person not only tasted all of these backgrounds but played a key role in guiding their thinking. John (once János) von Neumann did all of these things and more.

As Ananyo Bhattacharya makes clear in this admirably compact treatment of his life, what made this possible was a surprising gift for mathematics. From his beginnings as a child prodigy in Budapest to his untimely death from cancer in his early fifties, he has amazed everyone, colleagues or not, with the speed and depth of his thinking. Along with the biography’s emphasis on individual life comes a temptation to overestimate a person’s historical significance, but it seems fair to claim that there was no one like von Neumann.

The list of his contributions to mathematics is long, which is perhaps why there are few biographies – there is so much to understand and try to explain. Bhattacharya, a seasoned science writer, is naturally selective about mathematics and focuses on work that has broader implications. There were plenty of them too, and he’s working on surprisingly clear accounts of quantum mechanics, Gödel’s theorem, and the physics of explosives – von Neumann’s contribution to Los Alamos was to find the optimal shapes for conventional charges. which compressed the fissile material. when the bomb exploded, triggering the nuclear explosion.

That’s not all. Doing justice to Johnny also calls for an exposition of the principles of computer design (which he summed up so masterfully that all the machines we rely on now use what is called von Neumann architecture) and the mathematics of game theory, which he introduced to the world in a massive book co-authored with economist Oskar Morgenster in 1950.

Von Neumann wrote numerous one-off mathematics articles which spawned new subfields of inquiry, but Game theory and economic behavior perhaps his most influential work. (Morgenstern’s main role was to emphasize the need for economists to think more about human behavior and trade-offs when people react to the actions of others.) Most of us now have some familiarity with ideas like games. sum or the dilemma, and game theory has been applied in contexts such as nuclear strategy, developments in Darwinian algebra (which explain how cooperation can be evolutionarily stable) and the writing rules for auctioning billion dollar rights to radio spectrum bands. From there, it quickly spread thanks to the algorithms used to structure income streams in internet advertising and commerce, an ever-growing part of the global economy.

It’s quite a legacy, and underscores how von Neumann, whose life after WWII was a series of relentless traveling consultations for businesses, governments, and civil and defense agencies, consistently brought his mathematical approach into areas where it could be applied in unexpected ways. manners. His last major effort in this vein was the development of the theory of self-replicating automata – artificial assemblages that, like living organisms, incorporate both information and the machinery to copy themselves. We are now inundated with speculation and real research on how these devices themselves might evolve. The origin of the powerful combination of ideas at play here is recognized by the designation of the self-replicators we could send to another star system as “von Neumann probes”.

If we don’t really have a clue what it was like to be Johnny, any normal mortal might have a hard time grasping this.Bhattacharya manages to cover this dazzling range of ideas in a clear and compelling manner in no more than 200 pages. The book is labeled as an intellectual biography. We learn the key facts of his life: that von Neumann, raised in a prosperous Jewish home in Budapest, was a bon vivant, fond of money, fast cars and parties, preferably well lubricated. But intellectual life is really sufficient for one author. And if we don’t really have a clue what it was like to be Johnny, any normal mortal might have a hard time grasping that. Was he subject to the loneliness that can afflict those who are invariably the smartest contributors to any conversation, yet be sociable in his own way? It seems likely, but if it does, neither he nor his relatives have hinted at it. We can reconstruct his thinking from his notes, books and articles, and from a host of historians and analysts. His emotional life is only glimpsed at the end of the book. Terrified of the end, he startled his friends by returning to the Catholicism that his family had embraced long before in Budapest. One can imagine that was little consolation. When cancer reached his brain, he finally destroyed what fellow countryman Edward Teller considered to be his long-standing addiction to the thought, “I think he suffered this loss more than I have ever seen any human.” suffer, ”Teller said. The quality of thought exhibited in this clever plan shows why.


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