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the complete review - biography / mathematics / science
The Man from the Future
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- The Visionary Life of John von Neumann
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B+ : very good overview of one man's remarkable accomplishments and influence
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The New Republic
|The NY Times
|Wall St. Journal
Excellent on the science and maths von Neumann was involved with; not enough on the man himself
From the Reviews:
- "He was undoubtedly a genius, and reading this book gives you an inkling of what that overused word really means. More than one highly intelligent acquaintance remarks that it was as if von Neumann was the only person who was really awake.The problem facing the biographer of a mathematician is that conveying mathematical concepts in mere words risks either boring the cognoscenti or bemusing the uninitiated. Rather like the books of Stephen Hawking or Carlo Rovelli, though, this one is rewarding on different levels." - The Economist
- "Bhattacharya tells the story tremendously well, situating von Neumann’s work -- in fields from quantum mechanics to game theory to cellular automata -- as comfortably as I’ve ever seen it done. He’s also good at deadpan humour." - David Bodanis, Financial Times
- "Non-Euclidean geometry, set theory, the prisoner’s dilemma, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, self-replicating machines, game theory and nonlocality are among the astonishing range of topics that science journalist Ananyo Bhattacharya covers as he takes us on a whistle-stop tour through Von Neumann’s restless mind." - Manjit Kumar, The Guardian
- "Truth to tell, Bhattacharya, a physics scholar turned science writer, is less biographer than cartographer. The book doesn’t reveal many new details of von Neumann’s life and character, and our hero himself vanishes for pages at a time. Instead, Bhattacharya composes a rich intellectual map of von Neumann’s pursuits, shading in their histories and evolutions, and tracing the routes and connections between them. (...) One of the finest aspects of Bhattacharya’s book is his delineation of how the nuclear bomb and the modern computer flowered in parallel, and how von Neumann buzzed between the two, cross-pollinating and nurturing until one now seems inconceivable without the other." - Samanth Subramanian, The New Republic
- "The skill with which Bhattacharya teases apart dense scientific concepts left me feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, what we do see of von Neumann hints at such a fascinating personality that I wanted to know more; on the other, maybe there’s something to be said for fixating so intently on the cerebral output of someone whose daughter once observed, “My father’s first love in life was thinking.”" - Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
- "He warrants our recognition and admiration. But if we seek to root his fame in his work on the computer or the bomb, we must recognize that he did not work alone. (...) Von Neumann emerges from Bhattacharya's important survey as a figure of undoubted and remarkable vision, albeit one to be feared, and not simply applauded." - Paul Duguid, Times Literary Supplement
- "The Man From the Future is an apt title for Ananyo Bhattacharya’s brisk exploration of the products of this astonishingly fruitful mind, and where his glittering array of contributions to such diverse fields have taken us since. (...) (T)he author’s crystal-clear prose and his keen ability to relate the essence of mathematical and physical problems in understandable terms work just about everywhere else, making for a tour de force of enjoyable science writing. (...) The Man From the Future has remarkably little to say about the man behind the ideas that Mr. Bhattacharya so ably brings to life. Much less does the author try to connect the ideas to the man, or explain how one person could influence so many aspects of modern life. (...) (T)he one thing The Man From the Future is not is a biography of John von Neumann. It is, however, a marvelously bracing biography of the ideas of John von Neumann, ideas that continue to grow and flourish with a life of their own." - Stephen Budiansky, Wall Street Journal
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Man from the Future is, nominally, a biography of the remarkable mathematician John von Neumann (1903-1957) but the subtitle has it right it presenting in not merely as a 'life of' but rather 'the visionary life of'', as Ananyo Bhattacharya focuses on von Neumann's wide-ranging work and its (continuing) impact much more so than the man's life itself.
Bhattacharya does present the outlines of biography -- the basics -- but from the beginning on he looks at the larger picture, helpfully considering the larger context of the different stations of von Neumann's life, from the Budapest he grew up in to the Institute for Advanced Study, Los Alamos, and the RAND Corporation, among others.
Extraordinarily active in so many different areas, von Neumann is in many ways a slippery subject.
Bhattacharya's approach, of devoting separate chapters to each of his most significant areas of work, from quantum mechanics to the design of nuclear weapons, game theory, and computers is a fairly effective one.
(Bookended by a short summing-up Introduction and Epilogue, the book has eight chapters.)
It is a fascinating career, beginning with von Neumann's early academic success.
Amusingly, despite von Neumann's obvious mathematical brilliance, his father was concerned about his prospects in the field (it: "does not make money", he worried), and pushed his son to also take a degree in what he saw as a more promising field, chemical engineering.
(Von Neumann did get his PhD in mathematics, but did also graduate in chemical engineering.)
Such juggling of different areas would continue throughout his life, as would von Neumann's constant activity, physical as well as intellectual.
Bhattacharya only gives a general idea of his "to-ing and fro-ing", but he seems to have been almost constantly on the move -- and was always very active, wherever he went, as, e.g.: "Whether it was in Berlin, Zurich or Budapest, von Neumann was finding mathematicians to talk to".
Throughout, Bhattacharya provides a solid background and context for von Neumann's many stations -- in particular, in presenting, in some detail, other figures involved in these fields and their own work.
Early on it is the towering figure of the mathematician David Hilbert, but others are also succinctly introduced, such as Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel and how their work related to von Neumann's own.
Later figures range from Oskar Morgenstern to Lloyd Shapley and even figures from after von Neumann's time such as Stephen Wolfram.
Bhattacharya also makes a welcome effort to highlight some of the often overlooked contributions made by women, from Grete Hermann and her long-overlooked critique of von Neumann's impossibility proof (regarding hidden-variable theories in quantum mechanics) to ENIAC-programmer Adele Goldstine to the computer-work done by von Neumann's second wife, Klári.
Bhattacharya makes an effort to somewhat compartmentalize von Neumann's work in these separate chapters and even suggests some clear demarcations, as in reporting of a spring 1945 night when: "von Neumann decisively turned away from pure maths to focus single-mindedly on bringing the machines he feared into being", but in real life von Neumann seems to almost always have been involved in a variety of different fields at the same time.
Imposing some order on his presentation of von Neumann's life, Bhattacharya proceeds roughly chronologically -- but it isn't always a neat fit: after chapters devoted to von Neumann's work on nuclear weapons and then on 'The Convoluted Birth of the Modern Computer', Bhattacharya gets to von Neumann's work on game theory -- and it comes almost as a shock to be reminded that the work he wrote with Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, came out in 1944, a time when one might have imagined him to be more completely preöccupied with his work at Los Alamos.
Just how von Neumann juggled it all remains something of a mystery, as Bhattacharya devotes relatively little space to his personal and day-to-day life.
There are some tantalizing teases, such as Bhattacharya describing the child-custody agreement he and his first wife came up with regarding their daughter, Marina:
The two agreed that until the age of twelve, Marina would live with her mother and spend holidays with her father.
After that, when she was 'approaching the age of reason', Marina would live with her father to receive the benefit of his genius.
As to details of that home life, we get essentially none (though Bhattacharya does offer the reässurance that Marina turned out just fine).
Even beyond that, there are only small glimpses of von Neumann at work or play, and it is almost impossible to get much measure of the man or his work- and thought-processes.
'It was a thoughtful and well-intentioned agreement,' Marina says in her memoirs, 'but they were too inexperienced to realize that adolescence is often the stage in life farthest removed from the age of reason.'
Bhattacharya focuses almost entirely on accomplishments and outcomes -- and he does that very well.
It is a worthwhile and quite fascinating exercise, and Bhattacharya manages to cover a great deal of ground in a comfortably manageable, to-the-point summary form, showing also where von Neumann's work has left a mark -- one which often still reverberates to the present day.
The number of areas which von Neumann played a significant or even pivotal role in the development of, and the extent to which his ideas and findings are still significant today is truly remarkable.
Bhattacharya's book is a fascinating survey of so much of twentieth-century science, from engineering with very real-world-applications, such as the atomic (and hydrogen) bomb and the computer, to abstract theory.
In particular, Bhattacharya shows the cross-fertilization of ideas and theories across these many fields -- with this one man, von Neumann, so often in the middle.
The Man from the Future is presented in manageable form, with Bhattacharya explaining the concepts and von Neumann's contributions clearly but succinctly, in under three hundred pages.
One might wish for (considerably) more about von Neumann's working methods (and his personal life in general), but as an overview of his accomplishments, their significance, and the developments resulting from them, to the present day, The Man from the Future is a very good accessible and thorough introduction and summary.
- M.A.Orthofer, 5 July 2022
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The Man from the Future:
John von Neumann:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Ananyo Bhattacharya is a science writer based in London.
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© 2022 the complete review
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