Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Review of The Man from the Future: The Visionary Ideas of John von Neumann by Ananyo Bhattacharya

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = History
Book Club Event = Book List (09/14/2024)

Watch Short Review


“Von Neumann himself attributed his generation’s success to ‘a coincidence of some cultural factors’ that produced ‘a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or face extinction’.  In other words, their recognition that the tolerant climate of Hungary might change overnight propelled some to preternatural efforts to succeed.  Physics and mathematics were safe choices for Jews who wished to excel: an academic career could be pursued in many countries, and the subjects were viewed - in the early twentieth century, at least – as relatively harmless.  Moreover, one could reasonably hope that good work in these fields would be fairly rewarded.  The truth of general relatively was established through experiment and was not contingent on whether the person who developed the theory was Jew or Gentile.’” – Ananyo Bhattacharya, Chapter 1: Made in Budapest, Page 20

“A failure to adequately account for this meant that early efforts to calculate trajectories were wildly off, and shells flew far beyond their intended targets.  Throw in some more complications – a moving target, boggy ground and so forth – and the equations of motion often become impossible to solve exactly (in mathematical terms they become ‘non-linear’), forcing mathematicians to approximate.  That required arithmetic and lots of it: hundreds of multiplications for a single trajectory.  What was needed, but not available (yet), was a device able to perform such calculations accurately at the rate of thousands per second.  Some of the earliest room-sized computers would be built to solve exactly this problem.” – Ananyo Bhattacharya, Chapter 4: Project Y and the Super, Page 79

“Von Neumann was irked when newspapers reported that he had received the medal for showing that a ‘miss was better than a hit’.  He had actually discovered that large bombs cause far more damage over a wider area when they are detonated in the air above their target than on the ground.  The principle was well known, but von Neumann showed that the effect of an airburst was much higher than previously thought, and he improved the accuracy of the calculations to determine the optimal altitude of a bomb’s detonation.” – Ananyo Bhattacharya, Chapter 4: Project Y and the Super, Page 90


Is This An Overview?

John von Neumann’s logic and mathematic skill effected civilization.  Brought up in a culture that prioritized intellectual ability.  Abilities that were used in the development of game theory, a method of making decisions based on how everyone is affected by a decision reacts to the decision.  Game theory was used in understanding war decisions.  John von Neumann participated in the war effort, and was part of the development of bombs and improved their trajectory accuracy.  Developments which enabled the foundation of computers, and artificial intelligence. 



Much of the book is a description of various forms of mathematics, that would be better understood by those who already know the complexity of mathematics.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•How does John von Neumann think about the reality? 
•How complex is math?
•How does math effect civilization? 
•What is game theory?
•How did John von Neumann effect the Manhattan Project?
•What calculations were needed for a bomb accuracy?  
•How did John von Neumann effect artificial intelligence? 
•What led to the development of the computer? 
•Could John von Neumann drive?
•What did Einstein think of math?
•Why did many Jews settle in Hungary?
•What was the culture in Hungary?
•Why did Jews join physics and mathematics?
•What is hyperbolic geometry? 

Book Details
Edition:                   First American Edition
Publisher:               W. W. Norton & Company
Edition ISBN:         9781324004004
Pages to read:          271
Publication:             2022
1st Edition:              2021
Format:                    eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    3
Content          2
Overall          1