Physicist and mathematician John Von Neumann (born Margittai Neumann János Lajos) is said to have been the most intelligent man of the 20th century. Von Neumann, the genius who introduced us to the world of computers, robots and artificial intelligence through his work, was born in Budapest on April Fools’ Day 1903. Even as a child he showed that he was going to be one of a kind: with At the age of six, he mentally divided two eight-digit numbers and joked with his father in classical Greek. At the age of eight, he knew calculus and recited a page from the entire Budapest telephone book , with his first and last names and telephone numbers. On one occasion, seeing that his mother stopped sewing and, abstractedly, looked at the sky, Neumann asked her: “Mother, what are you calculating?”
Perhaps what most strikes those who think that scientists are boring beings is Von Neumann’s deep devotion to giving fantastic parties, where he was full of charm and was able to overwhelm his interlocutors by holding a conversation in four different languages . The parties he organized, according to a friend of his, “were fantastic . Von Neumann was a tremendously resourceful person, full of life, fatter than me. He knew how to have fun.” Of course, he followed the tradition of the absent-minded genius. On one occasion he left his house in Princeton because he had an appointment in New York. Halfway there he stopped and called his wife: “Hey, why do I have to go to New York?”
Whoever wanted to know him better faced an impenetrable wall. A workaholic, he couldn’t be said to be a sensitive person: his feelings, if he had any, he hid under tons of ice. In Princeton , Neumann was said to be a demigod who had made a detailed study of human beings and imitated them perfectly. Of course, his choice was that of a rich human being, because thanks to his genius he amassed a considerable fortune. This demigod loved expensive clothes, dirty jokes, good wines, fast cars, Mexican food, and women .
What is less well known is that von Neumann played a prominent role in American politics when he was elected to the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s. It is said that he may have served as a model for Dr. Strangelove, the mad genius played by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s film “Red Telephone? We fly to Moscow.” Von Neumann was one of the thinkers who clarified to American citizens what both the atomic bomb and the Russians were and declared himself a strong guarantor of the well-known saying ‘whoever strikes first, strikes twice’: for him the best he could do The United States was to attack the Soviet Union first , which shows that a brilliant intellect does not have to accompany a pacifist heart.
Zeldóvich, fun and genius
On the other side of the iron curtain things were not very different. Here they had Yakov Borisovich Zeldovich , a short-statured and rather vehement scientist.
Zeldovich was born in Minsk in 1914. The Russian civil war closed schools and children were left without instruction. Worried about the future, his parents found him a private teacher and when he turned twelve he decided that when he grew up he would be a scientist . Even more, he wanted to be a chemist.
Despite his efforts, he was unable to enter high school or university, but he did manage to get hired as a laboratory assistant at a center with a curious name: Institute for the Treatment of Useful Minerals . When he was 17 years old he was sent on an errand to the Leningrad Physical Technical Institute . His innate brilliance and loquacity captivated the Institute’s scientists, who were amazed to see how a beardless young man was able to carry on an erudite and profound conversation about chemistry. They were so surprised that they invited him back. To get her to work at the Leningrad Institute they had to resort to a trick: they exchanged this promising young scientist for a vacuum pump .
Zeldóvich showed an ability without equal. He absorbed knowledge like sponges absorb water. In five years he obtained the equivalent of our Ph.D. Zeldovich specialized in the behavior of gases, in particular combustion, and this led him straight to being recruited for the construction of the atomic bomb. Along with the famous Sakharov, he was one of the fathers of the Soviet hydrogen bomb . His exceptional work led him to receive the Order of Lenin three times (the highest civil decoration in the Soviet Union) because three times he was named Hero of Socialist Labor , the highest distinction awarded by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet for make exceptional progress in the country’s culture and economy. Zeldovich put these medals to good use: he only wore them so he could drink quietly in Moscow taverns . In this way the police, famous for their harsh treatment of drunks, left him alone.
From the atomic bomb he jumped to cosmology, a field in which Zeldóvich soon became one of its most important thinkers; It is not for nothing that he has been called the “Einstein of cosmology” . Two irresistible forces ruled his life: physics and having fun until his body couldn’t take it anymore . And that in Zeldovich was saying a lot. At 60, he was able to swim two hours, play tennis, lift weights, dance around a striptease dancer, and get up every day at 5 a.m. to solve cosmology problems on the blackboard he had hanging in his classroom. his house. Because at 6 o’clock he called his students by phone to see if they had solved the problems he had set for them the day before.
Bhattacharya, A.(2022) The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann. W. W. Norton & Company
Overbye, D. (1991) Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe,HarperCollins