Almanac December 28 :: John von Neumann

John von Neumann (December 28, 1903 – February 8, 1957) was a Hungarian-American mathematician and polymath who made major contributions to a vast number of fields, including mathematics (set theory, functional analysis, ergodic theory, geometry, numerical analysis, and many other mathematical fields), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and fluid dynamics), economics (game theory), computer science (linear programming, computer architecture, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians in modern history.

The mathematician Jean Dieudonné called von Neumann "the last of the great mathematicians", while Peter Lax described him as possessing the most "fearsome technical prowess" and "scintillating intellect" of the century, and Hans Bethe stated "I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann's does not indicate a species superior to that of man". He was born in Budapest around the same time as Theodore von Kármán (b. 1881), George de Hevesy (b. 1885), Leó Szilárd (b. 1898), Eugene Wigner (b. 1902), Edward Teller (b. 1908), and Paul Erdos (b. 1913).

Von Neumann was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics, in the development of functional analysis, a principal member of the Manhattan Project and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (as one of the few originally appointed), and a key figure in the development of game theory and the concepts of cellular automata, the universal constructor, and the digital computer. Von Neumann's mathematical analysis of the structure of self-replication preceded the discovery of the structure of DNA. In a short list of facts about his life he submitted to the National Academy of Sciences, he stated "The part of my work I consider most essential is that on quantum mechanics, which developed in Göttingen in 1926, and subsequently in Berlin in 1927–1929. Also, my work on various forms of operator theory, Berlin 1930 and Princeton 1935–1939; on the ergodic theorem, Princeton, 1931–1932." Along with Teller and Stanislaw Ulam, von Neumann worked out key steps in the nuclear physics involved in thermonuclear reactions and the hydrogen bomb.

Von Neumann wrote 150 published papers in his life; 60 in pure mathematics, 20 in physics, and 60 in applied mathematics. His last work, an unfinished manuscript written while in the hospital and later published in book form as The Computer and the Brain, gives an indication of the direction of his interests at the time of his death.




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