John von Neumann by Norman Macrae

So far, in my posts I have only written about popular science books that I liked. In this post I am making an exception, writing a rather negative review for a book that somewhat bothered me. I hope that writing such a post is not a big mistake. I guess I’ll soon find out…

JohnvonNeumann-LosAlamos
John von Neumann.

This post is about the biography of the mathematician John von Neumann by Norman Macrae. Perhaps I should start by stating that this is not really a popular science book, in the sense that it seems to avoid any discussion that is even a bit technical. The mathematical research of Von Neumann is stated very vaguely, and one mostly finds statements such as “… number theory, a branch of mathematics that is at once fascinating and frustrating” without any further details. When mentioning various scientists, the focus is usually about anecdotes, political opinions, and how smart they were. This last point usually involves some sort of ranking. According to Macrae, Aristotle was definitely smarter than Von Neumann, which was in turn smarter than any other mathematician of the 20th century. As another example, Von Neumann’s tutor Gabor Szego “was later to become one of the half dozen most distinguished Hungarian mathematicians of the twentieth century.” No explanation is provided for what these rankings are based on (occasionally they appear together with a statement by one person saying that another is very smart).

After reading my previous paragraph, you might claim that having a non-scientific biography of a mathematician can be a good thing, especially for readers who are not mathematicians. So instead of describing what the book does not contain, I now move to describe what it does. One thing that the book is filled with is strong opinions by the author, sometimes stated as facts. These opinions concern which government systems are better, which countries have the best school systems (apparently Japan is at the top), various historical speculation (“If Haber had not found a way to fix nitrogen from the air to make nitrates for explosives, blockaded Germany would have had to surrender from the 1914-18 war in about 1915”), among other topics. Some of these opinions concern someone being right or wrong about a subjective issue, without any further explanation (“… Eckert, whom in 1945 he rightly still wanted in his Princeton project as chief engineer”).

There are two contexts in which I found this abundance of opinions rather problematic. The first is when they appear in relation to mathematics or other exact sciences. My possibly-false impression is that Macrae does not have much of a scientific background. This is of course fine, and many wonderful popular science books were written by non-scientists. However, it makes Macrae’s many unusual assertions about science seem rather awkward. For example, after mentioning how important Von Neumann was to the development of mathematics comes the sentence “happily, and this is not sufficiently realized, it should be possible to get more like him”. The following sentence then explains that this is due to the lower financial needs of a mathematician (that is, paper and pencil). Claiming that von Neumann had a wider conception about computers, Macrae writes “He did not envisage these machines as today’s glorified typewriters. He hoped that experimenting scientists could use computers to start scientific revolutions that would change the planet.” Many such statements gave me a somewhat awkward feeling while reading the book.

The second case in which I found the many opinions in the book somewhat troubling is in the context of people with left-wing opinions. The book is PACKED with anti-left-wing statements, sometime without any visible connection to Von Neumann. One example (that also involves an awkward “technical” statement) is “He thought that those who believed in communism or socialism deserved the same sympathy as other simpletons who could not understand even linear equations.” After mentioning that various scientists supported Stalin or did not sufficiently oppose Hitler, Macrae writes “A common feature of clever men who occasionally supped on too-short spoons with Nazism or Communnism was that as kids they had never adequately learned to laugh”. It is clear that Macrae feels strongly about the subject, as the book contains statements such as “Among people who wanted to believe optimistic nonsense about western Europe or Soviet Russia…” and “… speaks in volumes to those who want to hear.” Such statements appear throughout the book and are possibly the most common topic that is discussed. Often such opinions are attributed to Von Neumann, although almost never with a reference or an actual quote (unlike many of Von Neumann’s statements on other topics). In fact, one finds sentences such as “I cannot find anything in his papers that suggests that he advocated that, although a lot of honest people thought that he did.”

Another issue is the extreme glorification of Von Neumann. I don’t think that many people doubt that Von Neumann was a genius that made a large impact on many fields, but the book takes this to the next level. It actually contains statements such as “the cleverest man in the mathematical world” and “Because Johnny was the world’s leading mathematical logician, he could clearly improve its logical design” (of the EDVAC computer).

I have more to say but I probably wrote too much already, so let me conclude this post. If you would like to hear how the smartest man of the 20th century had hawkish opinions, and that these were much better than all of those silly left-wing scientists such as Einstein, definitely read Macrae’s book. Personally I would appreciate a recommendation for a more standard biography of Von Neumann.

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6 thoughts on “John von Neumann by Norman Macrae

    • Thank you Brendan! I’ll take a look at what Halmos wrote. I was just thinking of ordering “The martian’s daughter”. It seems like it might be an interesting biography.

  1. Thanks for the reference. I didn’t know Von Neumann was inclined to the right-wing. I will go and read the book then, as I *do* want to read about Von Neumann’s hawkish views.

    I actually felt, when reading your post, that what bothers you most is the non left-wing political stance taken by the author, but I may be wrong.

    • Dear Bruce. Thank you for writing this interesting comment. I honestly don’t think that this is what bothered me the most, but one can always claim that my subconscious was in action. My political opinions are indeed to the left, although I am not a very political person. I cannot remember the last time that I argued with someone about political opinions (although I do tend to be rather argumentative about more factual topics). Also, most of Macrae’s arrows are aimed at supporters of communism, and I am far from being a fan of communism.

      Along the post I tried to hint more subtly what my main issue with the book is. It is too bad that it turned out not to be so clear, but I would still rather not to be too harsh in this blog. If you like, I can discuss this with you in a more private place.

  2. I quite liked “William Aspray: John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing”. it seems to be almost the opposite of the book that you reviewed. It gets into a lot of technical details, and tries to trace the evolution of von Neumann’s thinking on various topics, but almost entirely ignores the “personal side”.

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