cover image The Maniac

The Maniac

Benjamin Labatut. Penguin Press, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-65447-7

After the slender yet incendiary When We Cease to Understand the World, Labatut returns with a sensational epic of the Hungarian American physicist and computer scientist John von Neumann. The title refers to a computer that ran calculations on atomic weapons at Los Alamos, and to von Neumann himself, whose theories and experiments brought about a new reality for humanity—and one defined by its potential annihilation. It was von Neumann, the originator of the concept of mutually assured destruction, who helped accelerate American investment in nuclear weapons and insisted the U.S. should not fall behind the Soviets in the arms race. Labatut brackets von Neumann’s story with those of two other real-life figures: the darkly brilliant Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest—whose depression led him to murder his disabled son and then kill himself in 1933—and South Korean Go champion Lee Sedol, who retired in 2019 after losing multiple matches to AI, which he describes on a talk show as “an entity that cannot be defeated.” Labatut mesmerizes in his accessible depictions of complex scientific material and in his inspired portraits of the innovators. In his previous book, Labatut grappled with the ways in which scientific breakthroughs offered new means of experiencing reality; this one succeeds at showing how acts of genius might break the world forever. Readers won’t be able to turn away. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi, Inc. (Oct.)