Ananyo Bhattacharya: The Life of John von Neumann


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Who was the smartest human of the 20th century? Though intellectual celebrity probably dictates that the majority would answer Albert Einstein, another candidate is the mathematician John von Neumann. Today on Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to science journalist Ananyo Bhattacharya, author of The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann, and erstwhile physicist and editor at Nature. They discuss the life and science of a scholar whose mental acuity was so preternatural that he was affectionately labeled a “Martian” by his colleagues.

Razib and Bhattacharya discuss the social context of von Neumann’s upbringing in the haute bourgeoisie of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire (his family was elevated to the nobility when von Neumann was ten), a milieu that facilitated his insatiable intellectual appetites and provided him an incomparable set of peers that would ensure he never became complacent. Then, Bhattacharya notes that Von Neumann was not exceptional at every intellectual endeavor. He may have made original contributions to mathematics, physics, economics, statistics and computing, but non-polymath mortals may take comfort that he was known to be a mediocre chess player and a life-threatening driver. To sum up, they consider some of the aforementioned contributions that the “Martian” made to human knowledge before dying prematurely from cancer at the age of 53.

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