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John von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, engineer and polymath. He was generally regarded as the foremost mathematician of his time and said to be “the last representative of the great mathematicians”: he integrated pure and applied sciences.

There is a lengthy discussion of von Neumann’s personality in William Poundstone’s bookPrisoner’s Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb.  It paints the man in a very pleasant light:

  • “There is no scientific ‘queerness’ about Dr. von Neumann’s appearance.” (Good Housekeeping Magazine, 1956).
  • A picture in Lifemagazine suggested, “a kindly milquetoast uncle.”
  • He wore prim vested suits with a white handkerchief in his pocket. (As evidenced in almost every photo you can find of the man).
  • “Neumann’s mastery of English was excellent.For that matter, so was his mastery of Hungarian, German, and French. His English betrayed a Middle European accent that was invariably described as charming, never harsh. He had trouble pronouncing ‘th’ and ‘r,’ and pronounced ‘integer’ with a hard ‘g’ – this being a von Neumann trademark.”
  • “He retained a strong grasp of Greek and Latin learned in childhood. It was said that von Neumann could speak in any of seven languages faster than most people could speak in one.”
  • “He was the life of the party…Parties and nightlife held a special appeal for him… It was a common occurrence for him to begin scribbling with pencil and paper in the midst of a nightclub floor show or a lively party.” As his wife said, “The noisier, the better,” for him.
  • He enjoyed limericks.
  • He was clever and humorous. But some of his jokes would be considered sexist by today’s standards, though they were probably not out of place at the time. Rape, he once defined as, “assault with intent to please,”as one example.
  • He was also known for practical jokes.
  • “[His] sense of humour was often sarcastic. Witty, but also insensitive.”
  • “[He] liked hearing and spreading gossip.” A colleague claimed that, “one often had the feeling that in his memory he was making a collection of human peculiarities as if preparing a statistical study.”
  • He was a political conservative.
  • “The founder of game theory enjoyed games and toys.”And he was given them regularly as gifts by his friends.
  • There are claims that he was an occasional heavy drinker. But probably no more than the average for a Princeton intellectual at the time. His brother claimed that he “pretended to be drunk in order ‘to get along’ with his peers.”
  • “[He] was an aggressive and apparently reckless driver. He supposedly wrote off a car every year or so.” There was an intersection at Princeton nicknamed “Von Neumann Corner” for all the accidents he had there.
  • Poundstone writes that, “the fascination of John von Neumann derives from his contradictions. He was a mild, charming man who conceived starting a nuclear war and suspected the human race was doomed by its misuse of technology. But one searches long and hard for unambiguous evidence of a darker side to his personal relations. Most who knew him held him in the highest admiration.”
  • In Illustrious Immigrants, historian Laura Fermi wrote that “[he] was one of the very few men about whom I have not heard a single critical re ark. It is astonishing that so much equanimity and so much intelligence could be concentrated in a man of not extraordinary appearance.”
  • Fellow mathematician Norbert Weiner (of whom he had somewhat of a feud with) recommended von Neumann to Yuk Wing Lee of Tsing Hua University with the following praise: “Neumann is one of the two or three top mathematicians in the world, is totally without national or race prejudice, and has an enormously great gift for inspiring younger men and getting them to do research…Neumann is not high-hat in any way, and is most accessible to young students.”

William Poundstone’s book provides a wonderful portrait of the brilliant mathematician.

It is available (here) at Amazon.   

Martin Pollins
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