John Von Neumann

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Anecdotes about John von Neumann have been circulating for along time in the flood of memoirs, biographies, and historiesdevoted to the creation of the atomic bomb, the development of thecomputer, and other key episodes in the shaping of the world as itis today. Surprisingly, however, not until now has there been abiography of von Neumann himself.

Born in Hungary in 1903 (the distinctive culture of pre-WorldWar I Budapest, the milieu that nurtured von Neumann’s genius, isvividly evoked here), von Neumann was publishing major papers inmathematics and mathematical physics while still in his earlytwenties. In 1930, after a stint in Germany during which heparticipated in the first flowering of quantum mechanics, vonNeumann emigrated to the United States, which remained his homeuntil his premature death from cancer in 1956.

Norman Macrae, who served as editor of THE ECONOMIST for manyyears and is the author of several previous books, including aprescient study of Japan’s economy, tells von Neumann’s story in afluid, casual style. Von Neumann is “Johnny” in this account, whichresembles the after-dinner conversation of a gifted raconteur.Macrae is often slapdash (“Much earlier,” we read, “Johnny had beena young mathematics prodigy”—as opposed to an old prodigy?), but heis an utterly unpretentious guide who commands on a great fund ofworldly experience.

This project was started by another writer, Steve White, who wascommissioned by the Sloan Foundation to collaborate with StanislawUlam on a biography of von Neumann. Much of the material in thefirst three chapters, Macrae acknowledges, is drawn from White’sfirst drafts. Loaded with anecdotes and written explicitly fornonmathematical readers, this is a lively and engaging biography.The text is supplemented by skimpy source notes, a bibliography,and an index; the absence of photographs is a disappointment.