John von Neumann

28.03.2015 |

Episode #10 of the course “Greatest Mathematicians”

Two very different things can be tied to the name John von Neumann: video games and atomic bombs. Von Neumann was the primary inventor of game theory and was also heavily involved with the nuclear physics and thermonuclear reactions needed for the hydrogen bomb. In his lifetime, von Neumann wrote 150 published papers; 60 in pure mathematics, 20 in physics, and 60 in applied mathematics. He is one the greatest mathematical minds ever to have lived.

Born Neumann János Lajos in Budapest, Hungary in 1903, he later changed his name to John von Neumann. Regarded as a child prodigy in math, von Neumann was the son of extremely wealthy Jewish parents. He began studying advanced calculus at the age of 15 and earned his Ph.D. in mathematics by 22. At 23, he became the youngest ever to teach at the University of Berlin, his employer for five years before moving to America to teach at Princeton University. He would later become a U.S. citizen and live the rest of his life there before passing in 1957.

The list of contributions made by von Neumann to mathematics is extensive. His work made huge strides in number theory, foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, geometry, topology, numerical analysis, computer theory, and computer science. In addition to mathematics and game theory, he also worked heavily in physics and economics. All of our computers contain what’s known as the “von Neumann architecture.”

However, as von Neumann said himself, “the part of my work I consider most essential is that on quantum mechanics.” Indeed, he pioneered the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics. He was a principal member of the Manhattan Project, a research and development group that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. He specifically worked out the details of the bomb’s implosion device. It was von Neumann himself who selected Nagasaki and Hiroshima as the best cities for the U.S. to target with the bombs he helped create.


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