cover image The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

Ananyo Bhattacharya. Norton, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-1-324-00399-1

John von Neumann (1903–1957) was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century and “probably the smartest man on Earth,” contends journalist Bhattacharya in his knotty debut. Born in Budapest, von Neumann was a child prodigy who excelled at math and transformed the field: he was largely responsible for the architecture of modern computers, helped shape the present understanding of quantum mechanics, made important contributions to the Manhattan Project, was one of the founders of game theory, was responsible for the idea behind self-replicating machines, and was “name checked” in works by Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Bhattacharya’s admiration for his subject is clear: “His thinking is so pertinent to the challenges we face today that it is tempting to wonder if he was a time traveler, quietly seeding ideas that he knew would be needed to shape the Earth’s future.” But von Neumann ends up something of a bit player in his own story—instead of focusing on what made him tick, Bhattacharya spends most of his time on von Neumann’s ideas and discoveries and those who developed them further, and explanations of the underlying science remain fairly complex. Those with a strong grounding in the material will be entranced, though it’s likely too daunting for more casual readers. (Feb.)