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William Aspray

There was a moment in which Kurt Gödel, Albert Einstein, and John von Neumann were all roaming the halls of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton at the same time. Let that information sink in. Humanity experiences such gatherings of brilliant minds in a remote location of the space-time continuum only every so often; maybe the ancient Greeks and the men of the Renaissance witnessed such periods in time, as did the IAS staff at the end of World War II. How much will we have to wait for the next such event? One can only hope for a beacon of light in these times of right-winged prosecution of women and non-Caucasian minorities, religious-driven regression, and overt genocide and war.

As I write these words, the United States is firmly engaged in a society-wide degenerative process similar to what Germany and other European powers committed themselves to during the 1930s. John von Neumann and Kurt Gödel were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while Albert Einstein was in Germany. The three ended up working in the same institute on the other side of the Atlantic.

For some reason, “Einstein” became the antonomasia of “scientist”; after reading this month’s book, I believe von Neumann’s name should have fulfilled that role. His name is not as well-known by the greater public, and even in computing circles, the preeminence of the eponymous architecture casts a long-lasting shade over all of his other achievements.

(And I, for one, would love to know the story of the hiring manager of the IAS at the time. Whoever was in charge there was a visionary. Or maybe it was just a coincidence, who knows.)

William Aspray has been in charge of the outstanding “History of Computing” series at MIT Press, overseeing the publication of various titles and contributing many of his own. We have discussed some of those titles in this series in the past: Mar Hicks’ “Programmed Inequality” and Janet Abbate’s “Recoding Gender”. Other remarkable books in this series are “Building IBM” by Emerson W. Pugh, its sequel “IBM” by James W. Cortada, and “The First Computers”, a collection of papers edited by none other than Raúl Rojas and Ulf Hashagen.

In this case we talk about “John von Neumann and The Origins of Modern Computing,” a book published in 1990 whose title invariably makes me think of an adventure novel. Think “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom,” if you will.

And quite an adventure the life of Margittai Neumann Janos Lajos was. A child prodigy, he published his first paper in mathematics before age 20. He was the undisputable champion of applied mathematics in the 20th century. His work yielded groundbreaking advances in theoretical mathematics, quantum mechanics, game theory, economics, fluid dynamics, artificial intelligence, electrodynamics, meteorology, and computing.

Many of the fields enumerated above do not feature awards of the caliber of a Nobel Prize; had they, we can be sure that von Neumann would have raffled all of them. He received a few military honors thanks to his involvement in the Manhattan Project, a rather dubious distinction.

In terms of his contributions in computing, once again, the existence of a “von Neumann Architecture” opaqued the many other ideas he brought forward: cellular automata, artificial intelligence, sorting algorithms, the theoretical possibility of computer viruses, ALU hardware design, and much more. Without mentioning the insight he provided towards the design of computers, some released during the 1950s and many after his death during the 1960s.

However, his proposal and work around applying computing power to solve higher-degree differential equations numerically were, by all standards, one of the most extraordinary contributions to the 20th century. Known for centuries but extremely difficult and labor-intensive to calculate by hand, solving differential equations with numerical methods opened the door to a new world, quite literally, the one we live in right now.

Thankfully, William Aspray does not limit his prose to merely enumerating scientific prowess. He is a raconteur of the daily life of a well-mannered polymath, a man interested in his time and his society, curious and funny, eternally dressed in a proverbial three-piece suit. His death at the (very) early age of 53 is a tragedy; we can only (selfishly) imagine all the science we did not learn from him.

Where will the von Neumanns, the Einsteins, and the Gödels of our age migrate after the SCOTUS overrules democracy in 2024 and Gödel’s Loophole is proven to exist? At this time, the two major powers of our time, the United States and China seem unlikely locations for brains to settle and grow in the long term. Maybe this is the chance of a lifetime for the European continent; if not for all, at least for some countries therein: Portugal, Scandinavia, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, for example. Overseas, New Zealand, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Canada also seem like potential candidates to become major research powers in the near future.

The idea is to provide a safe haven and a fertile ground for the next generation of scientists to work in peace and freedom to solve the most significant challenges of our time; but the geopolitical argument will, as always, and sadly, prevail over other concerns. As Jorge Luis Borges said in his short story “Nathaniel Hawthorne” from his book “Other Inquisitions” (1952):

“The past is indestructible; sooner or later all things return, and one of the things that return is the project to abolish the past.”

Cover photo by the author.

Continue reading "Issue 045: Requirements" or go back to Issue 046: Computer Museums. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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