Odd Couple

John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death

by Steve J. Heims
MIT Press, 547 pp., $19.95

Norbert Wiener
Norbert Wiener; drawing by David Levine

The subjects of this biography, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener, were two mathematicians of outstanding ability. Their careers had a few features in common: both were infant prodigies; both started in the most abstract fields of pure mathematics, and derived some of their inspiration from David Hilbert in Göttingen. Both later extended their interests to topics that had practical applications, and their work had indeed a major impact on practical matters. Both were of Jewish origin.

Yet their lives, their attitudes, and their personalities were completely different. The contrasts, and the thoughts they induce about the function of scientists, no doubt provided the impetus for Steve Heims’s embarking on this combined operation. It is unfortunate that from the very beginning he can be seen to be anything but neutral. While Wiener is described with great warmth, von Neumann is mentioned mostly in a tone of disapproval.

John von Neumann was Hungarian, the son of a banker who had established himself in Budapest society and had acquired a title of nobility, which the son translated into the German “von.” John graduated in mathematics in Budapest, and in chemical engineering in Zurich. He later worked in Göttingen, where his main interest was the foundations of mathematics. He followed Hilbert in a program to prove that the whole logical system of mathematics was free from contradiction. This was before Kurt Gödel proved that such a demonstration was impossible. He made many other important contributions to pure mathematics. In the mathematical circles of Göttingen, the late Twenties were also a time of great excitement over the new quantum mechanics, and von Neumann saw the challenge in this for a mathematician with a flexible mind. He wrote several important papers and a book about the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, and some of his ideas are still fresh today.

He had a deep understanding of the practical physical side of the problems, yet his approach is very much that of the mathematician—some of his arguments turned out to be based on assumptions which to the physicist were not necessary or not reasonable. The impact of his work on the development of quantum mechanics was therefore not as crucial as Heims suggests. By this time, however, he had impressed everyone with whom he came into contact by the brilliance and the phenomenal speed of his reasoning, the width of his knowledge, and his memory.

He had no resemblance to the traditional image of a mathematics professor—he was always immaculate, with expensive tastes, sociable and gregarious, always courteous and reasonable, and willing to listen to an opposing point of view. He seemed cold and lacking in emotions, yet he was propelled by tensions among which ambition was certainly a strong one. Heims repeatedly claims that some of these characteristics derived from his origin as a banker’s son in Budapest, but I have known many a banker’s son…

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