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Von Neumann

A picture of John von Neumann


John von Neumann was born on December 28, 1903. He was a child prodigy, already with astounding capabilities from a young age. His parents didn't pressure him or push him towards his studies. Instead they let him follow his academic interests as at his pace and whim, which gave von Neumann the space to get incredibly interested and active in all manners or scientific fields. Von Neumann is known mostly for his work on quantum mechanics and modern computing, but is credited with helping greatly in almost every field in his day (for a complete list, check http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/notabene/von-neumann.html).

Von Neumann grew up in Budapest, which is where he began his academic journey. He attended the Lutheran Gymnasium there for high school, where he published a scientific paper at 17 on zeros in certain polynomials. He began university in the University of Berlin in 1921, later moving to Zurich, where he studied chemical engineering. He wasn’t too interested in chemical engineering, but his father encouraged it as it would insure a good job. To satisfy his father, he did study chemical engineering, but at the same time he was following his own interests. He enrolled in the University of Budapest with the hopes of getting a doctorate in advanced mathematics. Always going for the hard stuff, he presented his PhD thesis on an argued topic that most scientists weren’t even sure about yet.

Von Neumann’s work in quantum mechanics was mostly his taking two vastly different theories on emission and absorption of light wavelengths into atoms and stripping them down to their similarities and basics and crafting a new theory that didn’t have any hitches, making rules for “abstract Hilbert space” ( for clarification check the quantum mechanics chapter at http://www.redfish.com/dkunkle/vonNeumann/). He also introduced the idea that outcomes could differ depending on observation.

As for computing, although he didn’t do it all on his own, he played a huge role in its founding. He secured much of the funding for the development of computers with his already stunning reputation, and contributed to the actual work on it with his mathematical modeling and computational skills which he honed in his work at Los Alamos (he worked on the Manhattan Project).

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After the first successful computers were built, he became a consultant for IBM, reviewing new ideas for technological advancements or inventions. Every week he would have open sessions in which he heard proposals and weighed their pros and cons. He is known for being a great scientist, but necessarily for being good with people or being very helpful and open to new ideas. An example is his outright denial of a proposal regarding the FORTRAN concept, as he thought there was no need for anything other than a basic computing code (full anecdote can be found at http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/VonNeumann.html).

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All in all, John von Neumann was a great man who made much of today’s science and modern technology possible, even if he was the greatest individual.

Webpages cited:

http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/VonNeumann.html

http://www.redfish.com/dkunkle/vonNeumann/

http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/notabene/von-neumann.html



Other people to look into:

William Shockely

Tim Berners-Lee

John W. Backus

-Guntis Rutins

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