von Neumann, John

von Neumann, John (1903-1957), world-famous mathematician who was professor of mathematical physics in the University and later a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, was born on December 28, 1903, the son of a well-to-do banker in Budapest, Hungary. From the age of thirteen he showed a pronounced interest in mathematics, which was fostered by his teachers at the Lutheran High School of Budapest where Princeton's Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner was also a student.

After graduation from high school, von Neumann studied chemistry for two years in Berlin and for two years in Zurich but spent much of his time with mathematicians, taking a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Budapest not long after receiving his chemistry diploma at Zurich. Thereafter, he concentrated on mathematics and theoretical physics in further study at G”ttingen and Hamburg and after 1927 as a privatdozent in Berlin.

In 1929 von Neumann accepted an invitation to come to Princeton as a visiting professor for one term. Given a continuing half-time appointment the following year, he spent one term each year in Princeton and one in Germany until 1933 when, at the age of 30, he accepted appointment as the youngest and one of the first professors in the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study. In 1937 he became a United States citizen.

Von Neumann's brilliant work in mathematics also carried him into theoretical economics and technology as well as theoretical physics -- areas where he was able to make vital contributions not only to science but also to the welfare of his adopted country. His work in quantum mechanics gave him a profound knowledge concerning the application of nuclear energy to military and peacetime uses, enabling him to occupy an important place in the scientific councils of the nation. During the Second World War, he played a major role among the Los Alamos group of scientists who developed the atomic bomb. After the war he served on the advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission and on the commission itself from 1954 until his death.

In collaboration with the University's Class of 1913 Professor of Political Economy, Oskar Morgenstern, he developed further the interest in game theory he had first evidenced in a treatise published in 1928. Their joint endeavors resulted in Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (published by Princeton University Press in 1944), which aimed to demonstrate that ``the typical problems of economic behavior become strictly identical with the mathematical notions of suitable games of strategy.'' The theory was also considered of value for the study of government and sociology and for its application to problems of military strategy by the United States.

Probably the best known and most dramatic of von Neumann's accomplishments was his development of one of the speediest, most accurate, and most useful computers, which made the essential calculations that enabled the United States to build and test its first full model of the hydrogen bomb. Another computer he later developed enabled the Navy to do twenty-four-hour weather predictions in a few minutes and helped the armed forces plan the movement of men and material by mathematically simulating logistic problems.

Von Neumann received many honors for his contributions to science and to the nation. In 1937, when he was 34, he won the American Mathematical Society's highest award, the Bocher Prize, and soon thereafter, at a comparatively early age, was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a foreign member of scientific academies in Amsterdam, Lima, Milan, and Rome. In 1947 he was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit and the Navy Distinguished Civilian Service Award for his work during the Second World War. That same year he was one of a select group of scholars awarded Princeton honorary degrees at the concluding convocation of its Bicentennial Year; he was later honored by a number of other institutions, including Harvard and Pennsylvania. From 1951 to 1953 he was president of the American Mathematical Society, and in 1956 he received three top honors: the Albert Einstein Commemorative Award, the $50,000 Enrico Fermi Award for his contributions to the design and construction of computing machines used in nuclear research and development, and the Medal of Freedom ``for exceptional meritorious service in promoting the scientific progress of this country's armament program.''

Analyzing the qualities of mind that made possible von Neumann's extraordinary contributions, Eugene Wigner emphasized the accuracy of his logic, his brilliance, and his exceptional memory. Observing that von Neumann was ever-ready to help and was genuinely interested in every problem that presented a challenge, Professor Wigner said that he himself had learned more mathematics from von Neumann than anyone else and much more about the ``essence of creative thinking in mathematics'' than a lifetime's study without von Neumann could have taught him. Professor Wigner also quoted Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis L. Strauss's comment on von Neumann: ``If he analyzed a problem, it was not necessary to discuss it any further. It was clear what had to be done.''

In the summer of 1955, only a few months after his appointment to the Atomic Energy Commission, von Neumann became ill with what was soon diagnosed as cancer. His last public appearance came early in 1956 when, in a wheelchair at the White House, he received the Medal of Freedom from President Eisenhower. That April he was taken to Walter Reed Hospital where he died on February 8, 1957.

In a memoir written for the American Philosophical Society, Professor Eugene Wigner, von Neumann's close friend since their high school days in Budapest, declared: ``His accomplishments were manifold, his was a great mind -- perhaps one of the greatest of the first half of this century.'' A tribute from President Eisenhower cited the ``rare and great gifts of mind'' von Neumann had given ``for the defense of his adopted land and the cause of freedom.''

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion