John von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, and polymath. Von Neumann was generally regarded as the foremost mathematician of his time.
He made major contributions to a number of fields, including mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, representation theory, operator algebras, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and quantum statistical mechanics), economics (game theory), computing (Von Neumann architecture, linear programming, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics.
He was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics in the development of functional analysis, and a key figure in the development of game theory and the concepts of cellular automata, the universal constructor and the digital computer.
He published over 150 papers in his life: about 60 in pure mathematics, 60 in applied mathematics, 20 in physics, and the remainder on special mathematical subjects or non-mathematical ones.
Von Neumann was born in Budapest, Kingdom of Hungary, on 28 December 1903. Von Neumann was a child prodigy. When he was 6 years old, he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head. By the age of 8, von Neumann was familiar with differential and integral calculus, but he was particularly interested in history. By the age of 19, von Neumann had published two major mathematical papers.
Von Neumann's father wanted John to follow him into industry and thereby invest his time in a more financially useful endeavor than mathematics. Von Neumann and his father decided that the best career path was to become a chemical engineer. This was not something that von Neumann had much knowledge of, so it was arranged for him to take a two-year, non-degree course in chemistry at the University of Berlin. At the same time, von Neumann also entered Pázmány Péter University in Budapest, as a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics. He graduated as a chemical engineer in 1926 and passed his final examinations for his Ph.D. in mathematics simultaneously with his chemical engineering degree.
In late 1943 von Neumann began work on the Manhattan Project at the invitation of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Von Neumann was an expert in the nonlinear physics of hydrodynamics and shock waves, an expertise that he had already applied to chemical explosives in the British war effort.
Von Neumann was a founding figure in computing. Von Neumann was the inventor, in 1945, of the merge sort algorithm, in which the first and second halves of an array are each sorted recursively and then merged. Von Neumann wrote the 23 pages long sorting program for the EDVAC in ink. He also worked on the philosophy of artificial intelligence with Alan Turing when the latter visited Princeton in the 1930s.
Von Neumann's algorithm for simulating a fair coin with a biased coin is used in the "software whitening" stage of some hardware random number generators. Because using lists of "truly" random numbers was extremely slow, von Neumann developed a form of making pseudorandom numbers, using the middle-square method. Though this method has been criticized as crude, von Neumann was aware of this: he justified it as being faster than any other method at his disposal, writing that "Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin." Von Neumann also noted that when this method went awry it did so obviously, unlike other methods which could be subtly incorrect.
While consulting for the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania on the EDVAC project, von Neumann wrote an incomplete First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC. The paper, whose premature distribution nullified the patent claims of EDVAC designers J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, described a computer architecture in which the data and the program are both stored in the computer's memory in the same address space. This architecture is the basis of most modern computer designs, unlike the earliest computers that were "programmed" using a separate memory device such as a paper tape or plugboard. Although the single-memory, stored program architecture is commonly called von Neumann architecture as a result of von Neumann's paper, the architecture was based on the work of Eckert and Mauchly, inventors of the ENIAC computer at the University of Pennsylvania.
The electronics of the new ENIAC ran at one-sixth the speed, but this in no way degraded the ENIAC's performance, since it was still entirely I/O bound. Complicated programs could be developed and debugged in days rather than the weeks required for plugboarding the old ENIAC. Some of von Neumann's early computer programs have been preserved.
The next computer that von Neumann designed was the IAS machine at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He arranged its financing, and the components were designed and built at the RCA Research Laboratory nearby. John von Neumann recommended that the IBM 701, nicknamed the defense computer, include a magnetic drum. It was a faster version of the IAS machine and formed the basis for the commercially successful IBM 704.
Stochastic computing was first introduced in a pioneering paper by von Neumann in 1953. However, the theory could not be implemented until advances in computing of the 1960s.
Von Neumann was the first to establish a rigorous mathematical framework for quantum mechanics, known as the Dirac–von Neumann axioms, with his 1932 work Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. After having completed the axiomatization of set theory, he began to confront the axiomatization of quantum mechanics. He realized, in 1926, that a state of a quantum system could be represented by a point in a (complex) Hilbert space that, in general, could be infinite-dimensional even for a single particle. In this formalism of quantum mechanics, observable quantities such as position or momentum are represented as linear operators acting on the Hilbert space associated with the quantum system.
Von Neumann's proof inaugurated a line of research that ultimately led, through the work of Bell in 1964 on Bell's theorem, and the experiments of Alain Aspect in 1982, to the demonstration that quantum physics either requires a notion of reality substantially different from that of classical physics, or must include nonlocality in apparent violation of special relativity.
In a chapter of The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, von Neumann deeply analyzed the so-called measurement problem. He concluded that the entire physical universe could be made subject to the universal wave function. Since something "outside the calculation" was needed to collapse the wave function, von Neumann concluded that the collapse was caused by the consciousness of the experimenter. Von Neumann argued that the mathematics of quantum mechanics allows the collapse of the wave function to be placed at any position in the causal chain from the measurement device to the "subjective consciousness" of the human observer. Although this view was accepted by Eugene Wigner, the Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation never gained acceptance amongst the majority of physicists).
Though theories of quantum mechanics continue to evolve to this day, there is a basic framework for the mathematical formalism of problems in quantum mechanics which underlies the majority of approaches and can be traced back to the mathematical formalisms and techniques first used by von Neumann. In other words, discussions about interpretation of the theory, and extensions to it, are now mostly conducted on the basis of shared assumptions about the mathematical foundations.
Von Neumann founded the field of game theory as a mathematical discipline. Von Neumann proved his minimax theorem in 1928. This theorem establishes that in zero-sum games with perfect information (i.e. in which players know at each time all moves that have taken place so far), there exists a pair of strategies for both players that allows each to minimize his maximum losses, hence the name minimax. When examining every possible strategy, a player must consider all the possible responses of his adversary. The player then plays out the strategy that will result in the minimization of his maximum loss.
Such strategies, which minimize the maximum loss for each player, are called optimal. Von Neumann showed that their minimaxes are equal (in absolute value) and contrary (in sign). Von Neumann improved and extended the minimax theorem to include games involving imperfect information and games with more than two players, publishing this result in his 1944 Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (written with Oskar Morgenstern). Morgenstern wrote a paper on game theory and thought he would show it to von Neumann because of his interest in the subject. He read it and said to Morgenstern that he should put more in it. This was repeated a couple of times, and then von Neumann became a coauthor and the paper became 100 pages long. Then it became a book. The theory of games had been studied before, but after von Neumann and Morgenstern it received far more attention.
In 1955, von Neumann was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer. Von Neumann died at age 53 on February 8, 1957, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., under military security lest he reveal military secrets while heavily medicated. He was buried at Princeton Cemetery in Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey.