What John von Neumann really did at Los Alamos

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

John von Neumann (Image: Life Magazine)

During a wartime visit to England in early 1943, John von Neumann wrote a letter to his fellow mathematician Oswald Veblen at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, saying:

“I think I have learned a great deal of experimental physics here, particularly of the gas dynamical variety, and that I shall return a better and impurer man. I have also developed an obscene interest in computational techniques…”

This seemingly mundane communication was to foreshadow a decisive effect on the development of two overwhelmingly important aspects of 20th and 21st century technology – the development of computing and the development of nuclear weapons.

Johnny von Neumann was the multifaceted intellectual diamond of the 20th century. He contributed so many seminal ideas to so many fields so quickly that it would be impossible for any one person to summarize, let alone understand them. He may have been the last universalist in mathematics, having almost complete command of both pure and applied mathematics. But he didn’t stop there. After making fundamental contributions to operator algebra, set theory and the foundations of mathematics, he revolutionized at least two different and disparate fields – economics and computer science – and made contributions to a dozen others, each of which would have been important enough to enshrine his name in scientific history.

But at the end of his relatively short life which was cut down cruelly by cancer, von Neumann had acquired another identity – that of an American patriot who had done more than almost anyone else to make sure that his country was well-defended and ahead of the Soviet Union in the rapidly heating Cold War. Like most other contributions of this sort, this one had a distinctly Faustian gleam to it, bringing both glory and woe to humanity’s experiments in self-elevation and self-destruction. Read more »

Von Neumann in 1955 and 2020: Musings of a cheerful pessimist on technological survival

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Johnny von Neumann enjoying some of the lighter aspects of technology. The cap lights up when its wearer blows into the tube.

“All experience shows that even smaller technological changes than those now in the cards profoundly transform political and social relationships. Experience also shows that these transformations are not a priori predictable and that most contemporary “first guesses” concerning them are wrong.” – John von Neumann

Is the coronavirus crisis political or technological? All present analysis would seem to say that this pandemic was a result of gross political incompetence, lack of preparedness and impulsive responses by world leaders and government. But this view would be narrow because it would privilege the proximate cause over the ultimate one. The true, deep cause underlying the pandemic is technological. The coronavirus arose as a result of a hyperconnected world that made human reaction times much slower than global communication and the transport of physical goods and people across international borders. For all our skill in creating these technologies, we did not equip ourselves to manage the network effects and sudden failures in social, economic and political systems created by them. An even older technology, the transfer of genetic information between disparate species, was what enabled the whole crisis in the first place.

This privileging of political forces over technological ones is typical of the mistakes that we often make in seeking the root cause of problems. Political causes, greatly amplified by the twenty-four hour news cycle and social media, are illusory and may even be important in the short-term, but there is little doubt that the slow but sure grind of technological change that penetrates deeper and deeper into social and individual choices will be responsible for most of the important transformations we face during our lifetimes and beyond. On scales of a hundred to five hundred years, there is little doubt that science and technology rather than any political or social event cause the biggest changes in the fortunes of nations and individuals: as Richard Feynman once put it, a hundred years from now, the American Civil War would pale into provincial insignificance compared to that other development from the 1860s – the crafting of the basic equations of electromagnetism by James Clerk Maxwell. The former led to a new social contract for the United States; the latter underpins all of modern civilization – including politics, war and peace.

The question, therefore, is not whether we can survive this or that political party or president. The question is, can we survive technology? Read more »