‘John von Neumann was ahead of his time’: Ananyo Bhattacharya

Published : Jun 07, 2023 19:27 IST - 14 MINS READ

Ananyo Bhattacharya, author, The Man from The Future.

Ananyo Bhattacharya, author, The Man from The Future.

Ananyo Bhattacharya’s book attempts to explore one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century.

In his latest book, The Man from The Future, Ananyo Bhattacharya focusses on the life and work of the renowned mathematician John von Neumann, whose groundbreaking contributions revolutionised fields ranging from mathematics to artificial intelligence, game theory, and modern warfare. The book delves deep into the complex life and work of von Neumann, one of the most influential scientists in history. A science writer based in London, Bhattacharya has worked at several publications including Nature and The Economist. He graduated in physics from the University of Oxford and holds a PhD in protein crystallography from Imperial College London. In an interview to Frontline, he spoke at length about how the book came into being and his views on von Neumann. Excerpts:

What inspired you to write a biography of a complex genius such as John von Neumann?

It was never intended to be a biography. Penguin (the publisher) understood my vision and accepted it as it was. There is already a traditional biography of John von Neumann by Norman Macrae (a British journalist and economist), written in 1999, but it fell short for me. It didn’t give von Neumann the recognition he deserved, nor did it adequately explain the scientific significance of his work.

However, von Neumann’s name kept popping up in various contexts, from game theory to artificial intelligence to nanotechnology, and his contributions to quantum mechanics in the 1920s and 1930s were becoming relevant again with the current advancements in quantum computers and other fields.

Physicists had been working on quantum mechanics without delving into the philosophical questions it raised, but now, with efforts to create a quantum computer, those questions are gaining importance again.

Von Neumann’s name was cropping up in all these contexts, yet there was no book that could shed light on why. So, one motivation for me to write this book was to provide an explanation. It’s more of a biography of his ideas.

The second motivation came from my high school days when my teacher struggled to come up with an answer when asked about the point of learning math beyond checking a shopping bill. Math is much more than that; it’s the hidden language of nature and the physical world.

Although we don’t understand why math works in the way it does, it is crucial to comprehend the mathematics of life and the physical world because it surrounds us. Whether it is economics, neoliberalism, nuclear war, algorithms, computer programmes, or the workings of companies such as Amazon and Google, it all relates to mathematics, specifically von Neumann’s mathematics.

With this book, I wanted to convey the importance of understanding the mathematics of the world and trace von Neumann’s ideas from their origins to the present day. So, the book I intended to write is a history of 20th century science, an intellectual biography with von Neumann’s life interwoven throughout.

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How did you manage to comprehensively and accurately research and portray the complex, multifaceted life of von Neumann, including his role as a computer architect, pioneer, advisor, and humanitarian, which would have presented numerous challenges?

It took about two and a half years to complete the whole book. I actually quit my job to work on it, realising that I couldn’t do justice to the project in my spare time. I have young children, and about a year into starting the work, we went into lockdown, which posed more challenges. My wife became the sole earner in the family.

As for the research, this book doesn’t heavily rely on archives. I couldn’t visit von Neumann’s archives in the US. Instead, I relied on various sources, such as interviews available online, secondary texts with technical information, books by authors like William Aspray (author of John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing) and Macrae, von Neumann’s letters, an account of his upbringing by his brother, and a journal kept by his second wife, Klára Dán von Neumann. All of these sources helped me piece together a comprehensive portrayal of the man.

Also, it is worth mentioning that von Neumann did not write much about himself. His letters often contained personal information, but they also delved into politics or mathematics, which he found interesting at the time. However, all of this information was available in various sources.

Recently, I discovered that Benjamín Labatut, a Chilean writer, has also written about von Neumann. His book, When We Cease to Understand the World, is a novel, but it’s actually about science and quantum mechanics, and it follows various figures during this time. The book is brilliant, but there’s a vast amount of fiction in it when it comes to describing figures like (German physicist) Werner Heisenberg and other important scientists.

Labatut’s next book is called The Maniac and its central character is von Neumann. This author gives a compelling picture of a man with almost demonic levels of energy. It’s impossible to truly understand the speed at which von Neumann’s brain worked and how he thought, even for the cleverest observers. I drop hints about how fast and clever he was, but I don’t pretend to fully understand or get to grips with his human side. I’m not sure if I can, as some of his friends even said that von Neumann was an alien, a superintelligent being that had studied humans and learned how to copy us perfectly.

I sensed that there were multiple facets to his personality. His own wife, in their journal, describes him as an eternal enigma. When I asked his daughter (Marina von Neuman Whitman) about it, she acknowledged that he had two distinct sides to his character. One was a jovial party animal who could effortlessly craft dirty limericks and entertain children, revealing a deeply human aspect of his persona.

However, on the other hand, he also had a cynical side, stemming from his Jewish heritage and the traumatic experiences he endured during the Nazi regime’s devastation of Central Europe. He had fled Germany in 1930 to assume a position at Princeton, but had to bear witness from afar as the Nazis wreaked havoc and condemned friends and relatives to gas chambers.

These events left an indelible mark on him, and he never returned to Europe after the war. Both of these aspects of his personality coexisted, and both were authentic, as Marina mentioned. I alluded to this duality in my epilogue. I believe I have delved as deeply as anyone reasonably could in comprehending his personality, and further visits to his archives or inquiries would yield little additional insight.

“Despite his exceptional intelligence, he was known for his sociability and charm and his ability to interact with people in a human way, which is surprising considering the typical image of disconnected and aloof mathematical geniuses.”

Which contribution by von Neumann has had the most significant impact on science and technology in modern times?

It’s challenging to choose just one, but if I had to, it would be his contributions to computing. Von Neumann approached problems in economics, human behaviour, quantum mechanics, and computing with the same logical essence. He distilled out the complexities, making seemingly insurmountable problems mathematically and scientifically manageable. His EDVAC report, produced while working with the team that built the ENIAC, an early fully-electronic digital computer, has served as a blueprint for almost every modern computer, from smartphones to laptops, as they all run on what is now called the ‘Von Neumann architecture’.

Additionally, his progress reports on building his own computer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton were sent to nearly 200 groups worldwide and influenced their own computer-building efforts. These technical reports were invaluable in providing practical guidance on how to implement the blueprint. Thus, his major concrete contribution lies in both the EDVAC report and the technical reports, which have shaped modern computing as we know it today.

I argue that another of von Neumann’s contributions to computing, specifically his insistence on putting everything into the public domain and preventing the computer from being patented, has also had an enormous impact. He is the godfather of the open source movement, which is incredibly important today.

Additionally, his work in game theory and economics has also been influential, with the Nobel Prize in game theory awarded 50 years after the publication of his seminal work Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (co-written by economist Oskar Morgenstern, first published in 1944).

Looking to the future, von Neumann’s theories on reproducing automata and cellular automata (ideas from computer science and mathematics that talk about special types of machines or models, which behave in a certain way, taking one step at a time) were groundbreaking and ahead of his time.

The concept of machines that can reproduce has influenced fields such as nanotechnology and has implications for interstellar travel and stem cell research. As artificial intelligence continues to advance, von Neumann’s name will continue to be recognised in the context of cellular automata and self-reproducing machines in the coming decades.

In addition to his intellectual achievements, von Neumann was known for his ability to engage with people and his effective managerial skills. Unlike other pioneers like Alan Turing, who lacked managerial skills and never built a computer, von Neumann was able to handle complex technical projects with difficult people and achieve desired outcomes.

Despite his exceptional intelligence, he was known for his sociability and charm and his ability to interact with people in a human way, which is surprising considering the typical image of disconnected and aloof mathematical geniuses.

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How did you approach writing about von Neumann’s role in the Manhattan Project and the development of the first atomic bomb, given that it is a sensitive topic?

Initially, von Neumann’s contributions to the Manhattan Project were not well-known until I researched and found a technical history that clarified them. He made a critical contribution at a decisive moment, enabling the construction of the implosion bomb. Without his input, it’s uncertain if the project would have progressed, as building gun-type bombs in large numbers was not feasible due to plutonium’s properties. Von Neumann convinced (J. Robert) Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves (lead scientists of the Manhattan Project) to change their approach, and they did.

As for handling this topic, I aimed to avoid quick judgments and instead help readers understand von Neumann’s motivations and perspective. It’s important to note that von Neumann strongly opposed the Nazis, and many of his colleagues on the Manhattan Project were Jewish and wanted to keep the bomb out of Hitler’s hands. They believed that Heisenberg was assisting the Nazis, although it later emerged that he was not very successful, partly because the Nazis had lost their best scientists to America and Britain.

Even if von Neumann had known this, it wouldn’t have changed his view. He was already concerned about the Soviet Union as the next major threat to the Free World. He believed that once it became clear that an atom bomb could be made, the Soviet Union would aggressively pursue it. He also thought they would pursue a fusion bomb if possible.

Furthermore, he believed that if they could miniaturise it and fit it onto a missile to create intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), they would do so. In hindsight, he was proven right on all counts. The Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space the same year von Neumann died (1957), using the same technology to develop ICBMs. They had also infiltrated the Manhattan Project and were well-informed about its progress.

Von Neumann was deeply worried about the Soviet Union.

He was convinced that within a decade of the Second World War, they would start World War III, which would potentially lead to the extinction of humanity. This fear was so strong that he experienced episodes where he would wake up in the middle of the night and passionately discuss the implications of nuclear power.

He believed that nuclear scientists would be both despised and in high demand, and that it was his responsibility to ensure that the US, which he perceived as a relatively democratic power, had access to this technology, unlike the authoritarian regimes of the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Von Neumann even advocated for a pre-emptive strike on the Soviet Union in the years following the Second World War.

However, he later changed his stance when he realised that the Soviet Union already had enough nuclear weapons at its disposal, and that a pre-emptive strike would not solve the issue of their nuclear weapons development. In fact, it could potentially trigger another world war instead of preventing it.

This is a point that I emphasise in the book—this type of thinking was prevalent at the time, even from unexpected sources like Bertrand Russell, a renowned pacifist. Russell also suggested that the Soviet Union should be threatened with a first strike if it did not abandon nuclear ambitions, and he proposed the establishment of a world government to manage nuclear weapons.

However, hindsight suggests that this approach was unlikely to have worked. Countries like Pakistan and India, for example, have not given up their own nuclear ambitions despite concerns over a catastrophic war between them.

Cover of The Man from the future.

Cover of The Man from the future.

When considering history from a modern standpoint, it is perplexing to comprehend why those individuals involved in building nuclear weapons did not have ethical concerns. It is valid to question their motivations. However, as you mentioned earlier, it is crucial to bear in mind that the historical context was vastly different, and our present-day ethical standards cannot be retroactively applied.

To be fair, there were several scientists, including many from the Manhattan Project, who realised that the bomb was not intended for use against Germany, as the US military was apprehensive about the potential consequences. It was always meant for use in Japan and the ‘Pacific Theatre’. Upon this realisation, many of them chose to withdraw from the project.

However, von Neumann held a distinct perspective. He believed that the next authoritarian threat would emanate from the Soviet Union. During the bomb’s development, many project members believed that it was imperative for the US to possess the atomic bomb before Hitler could obtain it, which they deemed unacceptable. They later said that if they had known Hitler would not develop the bomb before the war’s end, they would not have participated in the project.

Nevertheless, von Neumann’s views were shaped by his own experiences. Although his prediction of a third world war with atomic weapons within a decade of the Second World War proved to be incorrect, he had accurately predicted the course of the Second World War and the persecution of European Jews in his letters to friends in the late 1930s.

Given his track record of accurate predictions, von Neumann may have thought drastic measures, such as a strike that could result in the deaths of thousands of Russians, were justified in order to prevent the end of the world. However, he also believed that the responsibility for such decisions should lie with politicians, as he had no aspirations for political office.

“Some of his friends even said that von Neumann was an alien, a superintelligent being that had studied humans and learned how to copy us perfectly.”

His work had a significant impact on national security and, in a way, the Cold War. How do you think his contribution shaped modern warfare and global politics?

Historians have noted that von Neumann’s work laid the foundation for neoliberalism, where everything came to be viewed as a market solution, particularly evident in the 1980s with Reaganomics and Thatcherism. They attribute this to von Neumann’s invention of the utility scale. This has had a profound influence on our current way of thinking, how politicians approach issues, and our overall worldview.

Game theory initially grabbed the interest of the military due to the onset of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s possession of nuclear weapons. RAND, a famous research organisation for military strategy, became a hub for nuclear discussions and game theory. It remains an influential institution even today, with notable game theorists like von Neumann visiting and consulting on nuclear strategy. However, von Neumann did not specifically frame his ideas in terms of the prisoner’s dilemma, which became the prevalent approach during the Cold War.

Despite its calculating nature, game theory forces us to confront the unpleasant consequences of nuclear warfare and make difficult decisions. Thankfully, most of us do not have to personally engage with such grave questions. However, for some individuals, grappling with these issues is part of their job.

Game theory remains a crucial tool for analysing the consequences of potential actions, such as how NATO should respond if Vladimir Putin were to attack Ukraine with a flip of a switch. This underscores the continued importance of game theory in contemporary decision-making.

Further, von Neumann’s contributions as a consultant extended beyond game theory, including his insights on mathematical approaches to logistical and organisational problems. He also provided valuable input on structuring scientific advice. However, due to space constraints, my book could not delve too deeply into the extensive political and military influences of von Neumann, which is a vast topic in itself.

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