There seems to be no science that is not touched by the name John von Neumann, spanning von Neumann algebras, von Neumann cellular automata, and just about everything else. His contemporaries referred to him as the most intelligent guy they had ever met, and maybe, as some claim, to be one of the most intelligent people.1
The Hungarian polymath revolutionized not only several branches of math and physics but also pure economics and statistics, and played a significant role in the development of the atomic bomb, nuclear power, and digital computing. Furthermore, his contributions to these branches of study also led to substantial advancements in each of them.2
A young prodigy who excelled at languages, memorization, and math from an early age, von Neumann was destined to be great. He could make jokes in Classical Greek, remember phone books, and perform astonishing mental calculations by the time he was 6. He could divide two eight-digit integers mentally and was also adept in math by the time he was 8. And, by the time he was 12, he could read Emile Borel’s “Théorie des Fonctions.” According to reports, von Neumann had an eidetic memory and could instantly recall entire books and phone book pages. 3 , 4, 5
He wrote two significant math articles by the age of 19. Before moving to Zurich, Switzerland, to pursue his chemical engineering degree, he first studied math and chemistry at the University of Berlin. He eventually completed his studies there. In the year 1926, when he was just 22, he received his Ph.D. in math from the University of Budapest. While in Berlin, he had the opportunity to work with Erhard Schmidt on set theory and attend statistical mechanics classes taught by one of the most influential physicists in the world.3,4,6
Achievements and Contributions
- Von Neumann created a solid foundation of knowledge for quantum mechanics through his book “The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics” in 1932.
- Neumann’s most important work, “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” was co-written with economist Oskar Morgenstern. The multidisciplinary scientific field of game theory was established by the 1944 publication of the book. The study was based on Neumann’s research article “On the Theory of Parlor Games,” published in 1928.
- He co-created the Monte Carlo statistical sampling technique with Stanislaw Ulam during World War II. This technique paved the way for the emergence of game theory as a branch of math and allows for the approximation of complex problems using random numbers.
- The 1928 minimax theorem was a significant contribution by von Neumann to mathematical economics. This theorem proves the existence of a strategy that allows each player in a particular zero-sum game with perfect knowledge to minimize their biggest losses.
- He created the first self-replicating automaton without the use of computers, using only a pencil and graph paper in 1949.
- John von Neumann was crucial to the development of post-World War economic theory. In 1944, he published “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” outlining a revolutionary mathematical approach to social and economic organization based on the theory of strategic games.
- Additionally, John von Neumann served in the Navy Bureau of Ordnance(1941–1955), was a consultant at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory(1943–1955), and was a member of the Special Weapons Project for the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C.(1950–1955). He was also appointed by President Eisenhower to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1955.
A person like von Neumann cannot be associated with just one thing or one field. His contributions are extensive and frequently too sophisticated for a typical person to understand and appreciate. Von Neumann doesn’t have a fabled story about an apple falling or having to overcome poverty to achieve greatness. John von Neumann was, in every aspect, a universal genius, and what made him unique were his never-ending curiosity, unlimited wit, and unwavering dedication to realizing the full potential of his extraordinary mind.
Read the articles listed below to learn about other notable mathematicians.
You can also visit BYJU’S FutureSchool Blog to read more inspiring articles on math and coding.
- This Hungarian-American Mathematician May Have Been Smarter Than Einstein | Business Insider India. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.businessinsider.in/this-hungarian-american-mathematicia n-may-have-been-smarter-than-einstein/articleshow/35606088.cms
- John von Neumann | Lemelson. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/john-von-neumann
- John von Neumann | Biography, Accomplishments, Inventions, & Facts | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-von-Neumann
- John Von Neumann Biography – Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/john-von-neumann-481.php
- John von Neumann. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/j/John_von_Neumann.htm
- Moser, J. (n.d.). John von Neumann’s Life and Achievements. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from https://www.mtsu.edu/faculty/wding/John-von-Neumann-Life-and-Achievements-PPT-JacobMoserP1.pdf