von Neumann celebrations

I think I might have mentioned before that von Neumann is a bit of a hero of mine.  I transferred my affections from Feynman as soon as I was old enough to realize how much exaggeration must be involved in the “Surely you’re joking” stories.  Sure, von Neumann may have made a mistake about hidden variable theories, but we are talking about a guy who gave us the first rigorous formulation of quantum theory, made major contributions to game theory and invented the modern computer architecture, so I’m willing to cut him some slack on that point.

Anyway, I thought I’d just mention the workshop at Princeton to mark 50 years since von Neumann’s death and 75 years since the publication of his book on quantum theory.  Looks like there were many interesting talks.

One response to “von Neumann celebrations”

1. John Sidles

Surprisingly, it looks like no one mentioned the work that John von Neumann did with Norbert Wiener on atomic-resolution microscopy (a problem that Richard Feynman also worked on). Details here.

Von Neumann also worked on the geopolitical implications of global warming:

@inCollection{vonNeumann:55, author = {J. von Neumann}, title = {Can we survive technology?}, booktitle = {The Fabulous Future: America in 1980}, publisher = {E. P. Dutton {\&} Company}, year = 1955, pages = {33--48}, jasnote = {von Neumann quote "All major weather phenomena ... are ultimately controlled by the solar energy that falls on the earth. ... "The carbon dioxide released into the atomosphere by industry's burning of coal and oil---more than half of it during the last generation---may have changed the atomosphere's composition sufficiently to account for a general warming of the world by about degree Fahrenheit. ... Intervention in atmospheric and climatic matters will come in a few decades, and will unfold on a scale difficult to imagine at present. ... Such actions would be more directly and truly worldwide than recent, or presumably, future wars, or the economy at any time. ... All this will merge each nation's affairs with those of every other, more thoroughly than the threat of a nuclear or any other war would have done. ... What safeguard remains? Apparently only day-to-day---or perhaps year-to-year---opportunistic measures, a long sequence of small, correct decisions. And this is not surprising. After all, the crisis is due to the rapidity of progress, to the probable further acceleration thereof, and to the reaching of certain critical relationships. Specifically, the effects that we are now beginning to produce are of the same order of magnitude as the great globe itself.'' Indeed, they affect the earth as an entity. Hence further acceleration can no longer be absorbed as in the past by an extension of the area of operations. ... The most hopeful answer is that the human species has been subjected to similar tests before, and seems to have a congenital ability to come through, after varying amounts of trouble.},}

The above references suggest, that if von Neumann were alive today, the two problems he would be focussed upon are these: atomic-resolution microscopy (in the context of system biology), and practical problems to global warming.

Which means … today’s von Neumann is …. Craig Venter! 🙂