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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 533

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This is the grave of John von Neumann.

Born in 1903 in Budapest, Neumann János Lajos grew up in a wealthy secular Jewish family. When the boy was 10, his father was given a spot in the Austro-Hungarian nobility, despite his heritage. It was at the point, that the family changed it’s name to von Neumann. From the very beginning, the boy was a child prodigy, especially in math and languages. By the time he was 8, he was functional in 5 or 6 languages and understood calculus. He published two major mathematical papers by the time he was 19.

Now, I am going to punt on most of this, because I simply don’t understand the basics of math and physics. But to say the least, von Neumann became one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He published well over 100 major papers in his life, largely in math and physics, but also in fields as far flung as economics. He did pioneering work in quantum mechanics and analyzed the self-replication structure that laid the groundwork for modern studies of DNA. On top of all this, he had a lifelong love of history and was as well-read as most history professors of the day.

Von Neumann converted to Catholicism in 1930, when he married a Catholic woman, though they divorced in 1937. He moved to the United States in 1933, when he got a position at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. His family all followed and thus escaped the Holocaust. He routinely pissed off Albert Einstein for playing his beloved German marching music at loud volume in his office at Princeton. He was known for such perfection in clothes that he wore a three-piece suit while riding a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He had a tiny problem of reading while driving and getting into car accidents. By the 1950s, he preferred to work with the TV on and loud. And of course, he developed all sorts of lines of scientific inquiry well beyond my feeble mind.

What I really know von Neumann for is his work on the Manhattan Project. He was as interested in explosives as all the other things that fascinated him. His expertise in the mathematics of planned explosions thus got the attention of the U.S. military. His major contribution was on the Fat Man bomb unjustly dropped over Nagasaki in one of the most disgusting murderous acts in American history. Specifically, he worked on the explosive lenses that made it work and promoted the implosion theory behind it. He was also on the team that made the choices on where to drop the bombs over Japan. Von Neumann wanted to blow up Kyoto, but eternal thanks to Henry Stimson for routinely vetoing that idea when the military brought it up.

After the war, von Neumann allied himself with Edward Teller to go all-in on the hydrogen bomb. In 1950, he became a consultant to the Weapons System Evaluation Group that advised the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense on weapons development. He also worked with the CIA. In 1955, he became a commissioner on the Atomic Energy Commission, where he pushed hard for more hydrogen bombs that could be used on ICBMs. He also favored preemptive nuclear strikes against the Soviets, wanting the U.S. to destroy all vestiges of communism in the world. Despite allying himself with the right of the scientific community during the Cold War, he testified in favor of Robert Oppenheimer during the revolting redbaiting of the man who did as much as anyone to win the war.

Of course, this wasn’t all he was doing in the 1950s. He was also a pivotal figure in the computer revolution, which I once again lack the intelligence to explain in even rudimentary form. He helped design the world’s first climate modeling software and worried about global warming by the mid-1950s. Many Nobel Prize winning scientists stated in one form or another than von Neumann was by far the smartest person they had ever met.

In 1955, von Neumann received a cancer diagnosis. He went through a deathbed conversion experience, not uncommon for those facing their mortality. He died in 1957. While on his deathbed, his brother visited. Even dying, he proceeded to recite from memory the first few pages of Goethe’s Faust.

John von Neumann is buried in Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey. This is the last post from the many graves I saw on that trip.

If you would like this series to visit other people who worked on the Manhattan Project, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sadly, Oppenheimer was cremated and his ashes spread at sea. Leslie Groves is at Arlington (how have I not visited him?) and Richard Feynman is in Altadena, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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