Born in 1903, John Neumann was a true prodigy. He specialized in mathematics, even in school, but he also gobbled up languages, science, and every other subject. He lived through World War I as a teen, and spent the inter-war years, World War II, and the Cold War changing science and technology in fields as far apart as computing, economics, nuclear physics, and quantum theory.
And he did so even while he built a reputation for drinking, partying, and eccentricity, sort of like a certain scientist from pop culture: Rick Sanchez of Rick and Morty fame.
First, though, we should point out some key ways von Neumann (his family received the honorific “von” in 1913) was different from Sanchez out of respect for the dead.
There’s no evidence von Neumann was nearly as troubled as Sanchez. He had a dark view of humanity, thinking nuclear war was inevitable and would likely result in near extinction, but he also loved his family and worked hard to make sure America would come out on top in a war. And he was impeccably dressed, usually rocking a three-piece suit, something Rick Sanchez did not do.
But he was a drinker, if not on the same dysfunctional scale as Rick, and he was a party-goer, even if he never had an orgy with an entire planet like Sanchez. Most importantly, he was easily as brilliant as Sanchez.
And when we say he was brilliant like Sanchez, we mean it. He could reportedly memorize dozens or hundreds of pages of text in a single read through, even mentally holding onto long numbers that went deep past the decimal. And he invented stuff or predicted inventions with offhand comments. He once “blue-skyed” to an Army officer about a machine that would quickly compute artillery tables for more accurate fire.
The officer he was speaking to was on the ENIAC project, a machine in development that did exactly that. The officer got von Neumann permission to see the machine, and Neumann was able to improve it almost immediately. He also began developing his own, smaller, less complicated, and more nimble machine. The Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer, or EDVAC, which would have been the first programmable computer ever invented.
The war ended, and EDVAC was abandoned, so von Neumann pushed for a second computer design, the Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer, the MANIAC, arguably the first modern computer. Programs were stored inside of it, it was a fraction of the size of all other computers at the time, and it was much more powerful than other machines.
It was used to do much of the calculations for the first hydrogen bombs. In fact, it was so powerful and accurate that someone asked if von Neumann had created a machine so powerful even he couldn’t out calculate it.
So a contest was held between von Neumann and the MANIAC. At lower levels of complexity, von Neumann was faster than MANIAC and perfectly accurate. But as the Princeton researchers running the test upped the mathematical complexity, the time difference between machine and man narrowed and, eventually, von Neumann made a mistake.
So, yes, von Neumann had made a machine so powerful that even he couldn’t out compute it.
And the MANIAC’s aid to thermonuclear development created a new problem for von Neumann to work on. He had done the calculations to decide what cities to drop the atom bombs on to end World War II and what altitude they should go off at (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1,800 ft., if anyone was curious). But hydrogen bombs quickly became thousands of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Von Neumann had to figure out how they would be used.
This involved not just figuring out what weapons would be employed where, but how likely the Soviets were to use their atomic bombs and, later, hydrogen bombs. To figure this out, he went back to a theory he had developed in the 1920s: minimax, the idea that a person works to minimize their losses and maximize their gains in zero-sum events when competing against a single opponent.
You know, events like war. Von Neumann used this theory to help inform American leaders on how likely the Soviet leaders were to use their weapons.
Not that minimax was perfect for nuclear standoffs. It led von Neumann to believe that a nuclear exchange was inevitable and America should launch a first strike to destroy the Soviet facilities while it was still small. History would prove this aggression unnecessary.
Sort of like how history would prove Rick Sanchez’s proposal to destroy the earth with a nuclear bomb in the Rick and Morty pilot episode proved unnecessary.