Saturday, May 19, 2007

Jacob Bronowski on Johnny von Neumann

from the companion book to the BBC series from the early 1970s, The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowki concerning the mathematician Johnny von Neumann.

"There was endearing and personal about Johnny von Neumann. He was the cleverest man I ever knew. And he was a genius, in the sense that a genius is man who has two great ideas. When he died in 1957 it was a great tragedy to us all. And that was not because he was a modest man. When I worked with him during the war, we once faced a problem together, and he said to me at once, "Oh no, no, you are not seeing it. Your kind of visualising mind is not right for seeing this. Think of it abstractly. What is happening on this photograph of an explosion is that the first differential coefficient vanishes identically, and that is why what becomes visible is the trace of the second differential coefficient."
As he said this is not the way I think. However, I let him go to London. I went off to my laboratory in the country. I worked late into the night. Round about midnight I had the answer. Well. Johnny von Neumann always slept very late, so I was kind and I did not wake him until well after ten in the morning. When I called his hotel in London, he answered the phone in bed, and I said, "Johnny, you're quite right." And he said to me, "You wake me up early in the morning to tell me that I'm right? Please wait until I'm wrong."
If it sounds very vain, it was not. It was a real statement of how he lived his life. And yet it has something in it that reminds me that he wasted the last years of his life. He never finished the great work that has been very difficult to carry on since his death. And he did not really, because he gave up asking himself how other people see things.
He became more and more engaged in work for private firms, for industry, for government. They were enterprises which brought him to the centre of power, but which did not advance either his knowledge or his intimacy with people - who to this day have not yet got the message of what he was trying to do about the human mathematics of life and mind." (Page 433-435)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this story...

Bronowski opened my mind to learning outside the academic world with his "Ascent of Man" series in the 1970s. I bought the book and stared at pages of this thoughts, not able to comprehend them with my level of intelligence. But no matter, it initiated a 40-year learning phase that once benefitted from only PBS, but now has so many other sources through the Internet.

8:06 AM  

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