Book review: “The man of the future” by Ananyo Bhattacharya

A new account of the visionary but often overlooked life of John von Neumann.

“Call me Johnny” would be the extrovert words that greeted guests at his lavish parties, social events that seemed completely at odds with our expectations of how a genius mathematician should behave. In fact, one of the reasons why Neumann János Lajos – John von Neumann – is such a fascinating subject for the modern biographer (as well as for the reader of so-called popular science books), is this contrast.

Besides being one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, von Neumann was also idiosyncratic and entertaining. For any commentator, the challenge is always to paint the double portrait of the stereotypical visionary thinker and eccentric professor with a believable balance. In “The Man of the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann” (Allen Lane, £ 20 ISBN 9780241398852), Ananyo Bhattacharya does just that, guiding us through the ideas that built the modern world while making sense of it. the man behind them: an aristocratic Hungarian émigré in a pointy suit with a voice like Bela Lugosi.

The reason we don’t know more about von Neumann is because the unscientific public is already happy with his mad professor archetype of Albert Einstein. This seems somewhat unfair to Bhattacharya, an author with a university education in science and also, crucially for the success of “The Man of the Future”, an experience as a contributor to titles such as The Economist and Nature.

The reader cannot help but think that it was the author’s journalistic instincts that led him to set the record straight for a mathematician who had once been “as famous as can be for a mathematician of the be “- in relation to his Princeton associates. Einstein and Gödel – has now “disappeared from sight”. Since the work of man informs “how we see ourselves as a species … and the machines that could lift us to imaginable heights or destroy us completely”, it is time to take another look at life and the world. work of von Neumann which ultimately led to the digitization of the 21st century.

Once you get past the apparent contradiction between von Neumann’s easy-going avuncularity and the intensity of his intellect, you are left with something even more interesting, a man whose “thought is so relevant to the to the challenges we face today it’s tempting to wonder if he was a time traveler, quietly sowing ideas he knew needed to shape Earth’s future.

These concepts have found their place in the computers of our pockets and in artificial intelligence, game theory and evolutionary biology, nanotechnology and nuclear weapons. The paradox is of course that in order to achieve such things, von Neumann had to live in a world that had yet to experience a fully digital transformation, and Bhattacharya provides the historical context for this moment on the technological timeline with the authority of a professional historian. Brilliant.

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