cover image John Von Neumann

John Von Neumann

Norman Macrea, Norman MacRae. Pantheon Books, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41308-0

Von Neumann (1903-1957), the mathematical prodigy who exercised deadly cool logic in developing the Los Alamos atom bomb and in placing Hiroshima on America's list of target cities, was an excessively polite, self-critical, shy genius. Born to a cultured Jewish family in Budapest, this bright light of Weimar Germany and of Depression-era Princeton is usually remembered as a warmonger and a right-wing hawk. But in this affectionate, humanizing biography, former Economist editor Macrae limns a prescient pragmatist who actively fought against fascism and who advocated a policy of nuclear deterrence because he foresaw that Stalin's Soviet Union would rapidly acquire the bomb and develop rocketry. A prime architect of the modern digital computer, von Neumann brought about a revolution in meteorology and left his mark on physics, game theory and economics. Macrae makes these contributions accessible to the lay reader, and also discusses von Neumann's relationships with two long-suffering wives, his political differences with Einstein and the cancer that killed him. (Aug.)