A Groundbreaker: John Von Neumann

4 mins read

Many mathematicians have problems with calculating from the mind (because mathematics is not only about calculating.) However, some mathematicians have the opposite problem. One of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, the American John von Neumann, is an example.

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Who is the John von Neumann?

John von Neumann was born in 1903 in Budapest, Hungary. His mathematical talent showed itself at the age of six, earning him the nickname “Boy Wonder”. He could divide one eight-digit number by another and speak classical Greek. He also had an incredible memory. A quick glance at a page of the phone book was enough for him to memorize all the names and numbers. By the age of eight, he was introduced to differential and integral calculus. But his special interests were history and language.

In 1911 John von Neumann entered the Lutheran Gymnasium, one of the best schools in Budapest. Von Neumann’s exceptional mathematical talent certainly made him stand out at school. By the time he finished his studies, he was already collaborating with professional mathematicians. It was certain that he would continue his career as a mathematician.

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Three giants: Stanislaw Ulam, Richard Feynman, John von Neumann. His lifestyle was quite unusual for a mathematician. Neumann loved to party, to eat and drink.

However, his father did not want him to study mathematics because job opportunities were limited. As a result, Neumann began to study chemistry. He eventually graduated from ETH Zurich in 1926 as a chemical engineer. Simultaneously, he completed his doctoral thesis in mathematics.

John von Neuman and the Manhattan Project

In the late 1930s, von Neumann began to study the mathematical modeling of explosions and quickly became the leading authority in the field. As a result, in 1943 he received an invitation to work on the Manhattan Project. He made fundamental contributions to the design of the internal explosion of the atomic bomb, making it a more efficient weapon. Von Neumann was also a pioneer in the development of modern computing. After studying the army’s ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrated Calculator) during the war, he used his mathematical skills to improve the computer’s logic design. He proposed a new design that embodied the concept of a “stored program”, now called the Von Neumann architecture.

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J. Biglow, H. Goldstine, R. Oppenheimer, John von Neumann

After the war, von Neumann served on the General Advisory Committee of the US Atomic Energy Commission. He advised a number of organizations, including the US Air Force, the US Army Ballistic Research Laboratory, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In 1955 von Neumann was diagnosed with cancer. He died on February 8, 1957, at the age of 53, under military guard at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, while undergoing medical treatment.

John Von Neumann was not honored with any award. However, many scientists believe that if there were Nobel Prizes in computer science and mathematics, he should definitely receive it.

Ali Esen

Istanbul University, Department of Mathematics. Interested in science and technology.


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