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 »
On September 19, Donald Trump spoke before the UN general assembly. Addressing the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, he said that the US "if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, . . . will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea." And of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he said, "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime."
There is nothing new about the US president affirming a commitment to defend itself and its allies. What is noteworthy about Trump's remarks is his cavalier talk of totally destroying another country, which implicitly suggests the use of nuclear weapons, and his deliberately insulting–as opposed to just criticizing–Kim Jong-un. He seems to enjoy getting down in the gutter with the North Korean leader, who responded in kind by calling Trump a "frightened dog," and a "mentally deranged dotard." Critics have noted that Trump's language is closer to what one expects of a strutting schoolyard bully than a national leader addressing an august assembly. And one could ask interesting questions about the psychological make-up of both men that leads them to speak the way they do. From a moral and political point of view, though, the only really important question regarding Trump's behavior is whether or not it is sensible. Is it a good idea to threaten and insult Kim Jong-un.
As a general rule, the best way to evaluate any action, including a speech act, is pragmatically: that is, by its likely effects. This is not always easy. Our predictions about the effects of an action are rarely certain, and they are often wrong. Moreover, even if we agree that one should think pragmatically, most of us find it hard to stick to this resolve. How many parents have nagged their teenage kids even though they know that such nagging will probably be counterproductive? How many of us have gone ahead and made an unnecessary critical comment to a partner that we know is likely to spark an unpleasant and unproductive row? And if one happens to be an ignorant, impulsive, narcissist, the self-restraint required in acting pragmatically is probably out of reach. Which is worrying when one considers how high the stakes are in the verbal cock fight between Trump and Jong-un.