John von Neumann (1903--1957)

06 May 1997 14:36

Johnny, as it seems everyone called him, was one of those people who are so bright it's hard to believe they were human. (Maybe he wasn't. There's an old joke about the Fermi Paradox, a problem which occured to Enrico Fermi one day at Los Alamos: where are They? If there are intelligent aliens out there in the universe, why aren't they here yet? A million years is nothing, as the universe reckons things, but, judging from our own track-record, a species only that much older than us would have technology which would blow our minds, pretty close to limits set by physical laws. Leo Szilard is supposed to have answered Fermi: ``Maybe they're already here, and you just call them Hungarians.'') About the only large current of the natural sciences in this century which von Neumann's work has not added to is molecular biology. Almost everything else of any signficance he touched: mathematical logic; pure math; quantum physics; computing (which, as we know it, is largely his invention), cybernetics and automata theory; the Bomb; turbulence; game theory (another invention) and so economics, evolutionary biology, and the theory of war and conflict; artificial life, cellular automata (a third invention), the theory of self-reproduction (which, with molecular biology, finally killed off any last lingering hopes for vitalism) and artificial evolution. What many of us like to think of as new and profound changes in the way science works, brought about by computer modelling and simulation, were forseen and called for by von Neumman in the '40s. If any one person can be said to be the intellectual ancestor of complexity and all that travels alongside it, it was Johnny. His only real rival for the honor is Norbert Wiener, a better man but a less overwhelming scientist.