The Man From The Future

Published: 2022-09-12

The Man From the Future explores the life of a time-traveler. Someone who theorized, pondered, and invented tools that would create the lives of some and destroy the lives of many. Game theory, quantum mechanics, The Manhattan Project, computers, and the RAND Corporation are just some of the many disciplines which von Neumann dabbled. This book explores those wide-reaching fields and the many lives they impacted.

At times during this book, I was a bit lost. Part of that wandering was due to the highly technical chapters that didn't come with any explanation–though I didn't expect much seeing how this book was written by someone with a PhD in physics. But part of that wandering was that this book didn't really explore the "visionary life of John von Neumann" as the subtitle claims. Instead, it explored more of the inventions and fields that the life of John Von Neumann invented. The beginning has the traditional origin story of our main character, but after that, the narrative of his life isn't cohesive. You do, however, learn much about the lives of the people he worked with and the work they produced together.

It was still a lovely read and I want to understand two fields better after reading this: game theory and the birth of the computer. I want to understand how to use game theory to demolish friends at Risk and I'd like a complete understanding of how the ENIAC created the EDVAC and how that lead to the modern computer. To that, I shall continue my exploration of the shelves of libraries that holds the wisdom of the world–all for my taking.

Takeaways/Learnings

  • The brilliant Hungarian scientists, who were abundant in the physics and math world of the 20th Century, called themselves The Martians because of their strange accents and exceptional intellects–they must have been born on another planet.

    • It makes me wonder though, why were there so many brilliant minds from Hungary in the 20th Century and specifically, how were they all working together?
    • Von Neumann would attribute his generation's success to cultural factors that produced "a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or face extinction."
  • Orthogonal polynomials are sets of independent mathematical functions that can be added together to make any other.

  • Von Neumann was 17 when he shipped his first publication. It investigated the zeroes of Chebyshev polynomials. This is the first time Von Neumann's voice appears and it wouldn't change much. Freeman Dyson notes, "Johnny's unique gift as a mathematician was to transform problems in all areas of mathematics into problems of logic."

  • Schrödinger came up with his famous thought experiment because he was trying to illustrate the ridiculousness that was von Neumann's claim of turning everyday objects into those of quantum mechanics.

"Von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my three-year-old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us." – Edward Teller

  • When von Neumann was offered a lectureship at Princeton, his arrival was delayed because he had to "fix a family matter." That family matter would be getting married.

  • Fabian Waldinger, an economist, analysed the impact of the war on German research. He found that "university science departments that were bombed during the war recovered by the 1960s, but those that had lost their staff remained sub-par well into the 1980s."

  • Von Neumann had an act for driving fast. So much so, in fact, that he would buy a new car every year because he had totaled the previous one. He drove a Cadillac because, he would say, "no one would sell me a tank."

  • Feynman hated the idea of the Institute for Advanced Study. The idea of the institute was to allow professors to think deeply about hard problems, without the burden of teaching and getting paid handsomely to do so. Feynman thought the whole idea was a shame, saying: "these poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all day by themselves, ok? They have every opportunity to do something, and they're not getting any ideas...Nothing happens because there's not enough real activity and challenge: You're not in contact with the experimental guys. You don't have to answer questions from the students. Nothing!"

  • Von Neumann was an exceptional thinker, but that cost him. His daughter, Marina, said, "Although he genuinely adored my mother, my father's first love in life was thinking, a pursuit that occupied most of his waking hours, and, like many geniuses, he tended to be oblivious to the emotional needs of those around him." His wife, Klari, notes other peculiarities. "A drawer could not be opened unless it was pushed in and out seven times, the same with a light switch, which also had to be flipped seven times because you could let it stay."

  • The design for Von Neumann's EDVAC had five distinct parts. The first three were a central arithmetic unit for performing mathematical operations; a central control unit to ensure that instructions were executed in the proper order; and a memory to store the code and numbers. The final components were the input and output units.

  • Gleb Watahin once commented to Von Neumann that he was done thinking about mathematics and on to just thinking about bombs. "That is quite wrong, I am thinking about something much more important than bombs. I am thinking about computers."

  • In 1947, Jean Batrik, one of the ENIAC's original operators, was hired to program the EDVAC–"the first time anyone had been employed solely for that task. The job of the computer programmer was born."

    • Von Neumann's wife, Klari, wrote complex Monte Carlo simulation to run on the EDVAC. It was the first truly useful modern program ever to have been executed.
  • The birth of the field of Game Theory into the world spung from Von Neumann's urge to find neat mathematical solutions to complicated real-world problems.

"The task of the perfect strategist is to gain the upper hand with as little effort as possible." – Emmanual Lasker

  • Von Neumann boiled games down to a series of events. Some events depended entirely on chance, which he called 'draws'; and other which depend on the "free decision" of the players, which he called 'steps.' Each player's goal in a zero-sum game, is to minimize the amount they can lose while minimizing the amount they can win. This became known as Von Neumann's 'minimax' theory.

"Any event may be regarded as a game of strategy if one looks at the effect it has on participants" - von Neumann.

  • Chess, tic-tac-toe, and other similar games von Neumann calls games of "perfect information" because all the moves are available to every player. Every game of perfect information must end in a win or a draw and there is always only one optimal move for each player at a time.

"The point of bluffing is not so much that you might win with a bad hand, as that you want to encourage the opposition to bet with middle-range hands when you have a good hand." – Kenneth Binmore

  • When formulating a strategy, one always has to account for actions of a completely rational enemy.

  • For a machine to copy itself, von Neumann argues three things are required. 1) The machine must have a set of instructions that describe how to build another like it. 2) It must have a construction unit to build new automaton by executing the instructions. 3) Finally, it needs a way to copy the instructions and insert them into the new machine.

  • Floccinaucinihilipilification - The habit of regarding something as worthless.

  • The first conference dedicated to artificial life was at Los Alamos in September, 1987.

  • John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky originally coined the term "artificial intelligence" and founded one of the first labs to study it at MIT in the 1950s.

  • Terrified of his own death, von Neumann saw the catholic priest while he was in the hospital. Marina, von Neumann's daughter, said he was thinking of Pascal's wager and had always believed that in the face "of even a small possibility of suffering eternal damnation the only logical course is to be a believer before the end." According to her, von Neumann once told her, "Catholicism was a very rough religion to love in but it was the only one to die in."

  • In a page of her unfinished memoirs, von Neumann's longtime wife, Klári writes: "I would like to tell about the man, the strange contradictory and controversial person; childish and good-humored, sophisticated and savage, brilliantly clever yet with a very limited, almost primitive lack of ability to handle his emotions–an enigma of nature that will have to remain unresolved."