The Man from the Future

An interesting study in the life of a profoundly influential man.

Assumed audience: People who like books, of course; and people who wonder how we discovered and made the modern world we live in.

cover for 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 (2022)
Bhattacharya’s biography wanders a bit, but von Neumann is a fascinating subject and well worth getting to know a bit about. In many ways, our world is the future he imagined and helped bring about.

I saw a few different folks refer to Ananyo Bhattacharya’s biography of 20th-century intellectual giant John von Neumann earlier this year, and so when I was looking for a change of pace in my reading a few weeks ago, I put it on the hold list from the library, and steadily worked through it over the past few weeks. I consider myself well-rewarded: von Neumann contributed in significant degree to an surprisingly wide set number of fields: the fundamentals of math and physics, the atomic bomb project, modern computing, and more.

The story is a sobering one, in many ways. Von Neumann was clearly a genius who stood out for the breadth of his contributions; but those contributions were rather horrifying at times — most of all in his work on the atomic bomb. I got the sense, reading the book, that here was a man who could have used to take Pascal’s Wager seriously before the end of his life — though I am glad to hear he took it seriously in his final year.

Beyond the man himself, the milieu in which he worked was sometimes quite astonishing to consider. I had much the same feeling as when reading Alan Jacobs’ The Year of our Lord 1943: this was an age past in many ways. (Consider that we are now as far from the end of World War II as its beginning was from the end of the American Civil War.) We have gone from the world in which computers were just being imagined in their modern form to a world in which they are everywhere; from a world where just-newly-understood nuclear physics powered two of the most horrific and wicked acts of war ever committed to a world where we now come into the possible shadow of that terror again after having breathed a 3-decades-long sigh of relief; from a world where DNA was not yet known to one where it can be rewritten, for good and for ill — and more. And von Neumann touched all those threads and others.

This is a good book, worth your time… though I think you should feel free to skim a bit: Bhattacharya’s style is a bit wandering. He uses the biography to tell a great many other stories around von Neumann’s own. That helps illuminate the milieu, no doubt; but I could have used fewer of those digressions even so.