John von Neumann

John von Neumann (1903-1957)

Accepting an invitation from Oswald Veblen to lecture on quantum theory at Princeton University, John von Neumann was one of a group of Hungarian and Jewish intellectuals to escape to the United States from the turmoil of Europe. The newly wed von Neumann, with his wife Mariette Kovesi, arrived in the United States in 1930. Following a year as a guest lecturer, he was appointed to the faculty. At age 30, he became the youngest professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in the School of Mathematics, where he was frequently mistaken for a graduate student.

In The Legacy of John von Neumann, Proceedings of Symposia in Pure Mathematics, American Mathematical Society, volume 50, Israel Halperin, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Toronto, recalled the mathematics environment of Princeton at this time: "During 1933-36 there were at Princeton, among others: the professors Eisenhart, Lefschetz, Wedderburn, Church, H. P. Robertson, Wigner, Bochner, Wilks, Tucker, Bohnenblust, Veblen, von Neumann, Alexander, Weyl, Einstein; and a stream of visitors, among them, Montgomery, Brauer, Coxeter, Gödel, Bernays, Ulam, Albert, Dirac, Pauli, Jessen, Myers, Zippin, Nakayama, Ted Martin, Levinson, Bergman, Infeld, Chabauty, and Bouckaert. . . In this galaxy of stars, von Neumann radiated excitement. His lectures on Hilbert Space, measure theory, rings of operators (called now von Neumann algebras), and continuous geometry, fascinated a large audience. At the daily afternoon tea, he engaged some in a most lively and stimulating discussion. With obvious delight he explained, clarified, and analyzed problems on the spot and gave help to one and all."

Fellow mathematicians and physicists marveled at the speed with which von Neumann could analyze and solve complex problems. "Most mathematicians prove what they can, von Neumann proves what he wants," was a popular saying among mathematicians of his day.

During the war, von Neumann's intellect tackled hydrodynamics, ballistics, meteorology, game theory, and statistics, applying mathematical rigor to practical problems in these fields. He worked on the Manhattan Project and by the latter years of World War II was a consultant to several government committees, moving between groups of scientists in government, university, and industry research laboratories. His broad perspective allowed him to envision applications for computers beyond that of speedy calculating devices and he initiated the Electronic Computer Project at the Institute. His contributions to the war effort were recognized in 1947, when he was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit and the Distinguished Civilian Service Award; and in 1956, when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Eisenhower at the White House. In that same year, he received the Albert Einstein Commemorative Award and the Enrico Fermi Award.

Von Neumann's academic career was filled with awards and honors. He was a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Academiz Nacional de Ciencias Exactas, Peru; Acamedia Nazionale dei Lincei, Italy; National Academy of Sciences; Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and Letters; Information Processing Hall of Fame; and held numerous honorary degrees.

"He not only showed the physicists, economists, and electrical engineers that formal mathematics could yield fresh breakthroughs in their fields," wrote Sylvia Nasar, Director's Visitor (2002-03), "but made the enterprise of applying mathematics to real-world disciplines seem glamorous to the purest of young mathematicians."

In 1954, von Neumann was asked to be one of five atomic energy commissioners. A year later, he was diagnosed with cancer. He died at the age of 53 on February 8, 1957.