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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Touching Masterpiece for all Scholars and even any Concerned Readers,
As a prodigious reader of biographies--of all sorts, but mostly those of persons of science and mathematics (probably read about a hundred)--I feel qualified to say that this biography of John von Neumann is one of the greatest written biographies available today. While the previous reviewers are completely correct in that there is little detailed technical information,...
Published on November 3, 2012 by Kunj Patel

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too little focus on science
The book is enjoyable but the descriptions of Neumann's contributions to science are too brief.
In the beginning chapter there is almost full page explaining the origin of the surnames of John's parents, or the meaning of the word " Gymnasium " in different countries and I would have liked to have a similar level of detail about John's work and breakthroughs...
Published on October 25, 2010 by S. ragno


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Touching Masterpiece for all Scholars and even any Concerned Readers,, November 3, 2012
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This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
As a prodigious reader of biographies--of all sorts, but mostly those of persons of science and mathematics (probably read about a hundred)--I feel qualified to say that this biography of John von Neumann is one of the greatest written biographies available today. While the previous reviewers are completely correct in that there is little detailed technical information, the book more than compensates for this in its other aspects. The book is filled with fantastic anecdotes regarding John von Neumann's eccentricities and his extraordinary displays of his unparalleled abilities at mental calculation, problem solving, and memorization. (He was able to memorize entire book chapters verbatim and recite them 15 years later. He could easily multiply two eight digit numbers in his head. And so on...) The few stories that aren't breathtaking are downright hilarious! They often show the jovial side (and sometimes licentious side) of this man, who was one of the single greatest minds of the past millenium.

I particularly recommend this book for all types of quantitative thinkers, or even scholars of any sort who wish to widen their purview of the world. Von Neumann helps to define what it means to be an exemplary scientist. Furthermore, he does a great job of showing the moral responsibilities and gentlemanly behavior required of men of his stature and fame.

In the historical domain, this biography necessarily beats out most others simply because von Neumann was so intimately connected with some of the big scientific and political events of the 21st century (Hungarian education and WWI, Quantum Mechanics, the A-bomb and WWII, the Digital Computer, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and the Cold War, etc.). I once was talking with a professor about von Neumann, and at a certain point he seemed to think that I thought von Neumann's work was greater than Einstein's. I quicky corrected this. However, upon reflection, I now think that while no single theory of von Neumann's is greater than Einstein's General Relativity, when their work is considered and compared as a whole, von Neumann's entire work will probably have a greater impact on the world as time progresses. The computer, for one, has affected domains of science that Einstein's work doesn't touch. Game Theory and Meterology have similar more global effects.

I highly recommend this book for aspiring young scientists and students of any age. It is inspirational to see such a devoted and passionate man, and in my personal life, von Neumann's example has served as a source of considerable encouragement and as a lesson on the greatness of human potential. This book is the best place to encounter von Neumann's exemplary example.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good biography of a true genius, June 21, 2006
This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
John von Neumann was a prodigy's prodigy, the likes of whom rarely grace the earth. Norman McRae is one of the few intrepid biographers who have dared to take on von Neumann's phenomenally accomplished life. As was to be expected, McRae wasn't equal to his subject, but the book is still extremely worthwhile.

I wished that McRae had put more effort into describing the science of von Neuman's work - Aspray did an excellent job in describing his contributions to computer science - and spared us some his thoughts on the Japanese economy. Nevertheless, this is a good, if imperfect book, and one of the best on John von Neumann.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too little focus on science, October 25, 2010
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This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
The book is enjoyable but the descriptions of Neumann's contributions to science are too brief.
In the beginning chapter there is almost full page explaining the origin of the surnames of John's parents, or the meaning of the word " Gymnasium " in different countries and I would have liked to have a similar level of detail about John's work and breakthroughs.
Despite being light on equations, the book is still interesting and accessible.
3,5 stars.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the life and the times of von Neumann, January 1, 2013
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This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
The author Norman Macrae, a long time editor of the Economist, is a brilliant writer.
John von Neumann was one of the few mathematicians with a huge impact in technology and science outside mathematics itself. The book concentrates on those areas, quantum mechanics, the atomic bomb, computers (e.g., the idea of stored programs); as well as the times, and the historical background, Hungary, Germany, the USA.
There are many biographies of pioneers in physics and the other sciences, but to the public, the lives of mathematicians are ignored. Although a mathematician of axioms, von Neumann is nonetheless unique material for a biography of wide appeal.
The book is well researched, but it is also a delightful read; at times it reads as a thriller.
Also covered: von Neumann's two marriages, his friends and collaborators, and the planning and the building of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton in the 1930ties. Covered especially well are the two decades in Europe between the two World Wars, as it relates to von Neumann, and to mathematics; and the building of a scientific infrastructure in the US in the 1950ties when von Neumann was a government advisor to the Eisenhower administration for defense strategies, and for science and energy. Among other things at the time of his death, von Neumann was head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Reviewed by Palle E T Jorgensen, January 1213.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Biography of a supergenius, June 27, 2012
This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
John von Neumann, or simply Johnny as he was known among his friends and colleagues, in one of the five Hungarian-born "martians" that emigrated to the States before the start of WWII. He was a mathematician of great power and a polymath that contributed greatly to many scientific fields such as physics, quantum mechanics, fluid dynamics, computer science, game theory, and economy. As a child prodigy he was able to entertain family guests by memorizing any page of Budapest's telephone book and then providing the phone number associated to a user and the other way round. His memory was awesome being able to recite verbatim the pages of books that he read fifteen or more years before. His speed of mental computing was unbeatable being able to outperform most of his colleagues (perhaps only Fermi with his ruler and Feynman with his Marchant mechanical calculator could keep pace with his speed). These and other interesting stories are nicely described in Macrae's book. Overall, I enjoyed reading the book and as far as I am aware this is the best available biography of Johnny. Further details about the development of the first electronic computer (the IAS machine) based on the socalled "von Neumann architecture" can be found in George Dyson's Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe while the scientific and personal interactions between Johnny and the other "martians" (von Karman, Szilard, Teller, Wigner) are nicely described in Martians of Science by Istvan Hargittai.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The road not taken, January 4, 2010
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This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
Norman Macrae, retired editor of The Economist, packs several pivotal economic theory events into Chapter 11 of his "John von Neumann." With so much of the industrialized world facing Chapter 11 (as in bankruptcy) Macrae's exposition is well worth rumination.
Von Neumann (1903-1957) superbly complemented Ludwig von Mises' teaching that the differential equations of physics are not applicable to economic phenomenon because of the absence of constant relations. Inequalities, von Neumann pointed out, are at least as important in economics (p. 251, 1992 hardback edition).
The great mathematician is critical of math's role in economics to date but doesn't turn the whole subject back to the literary crowd. Math can be used in economics provided the problem is properly defined, von Neumann holds (p. 264) - "There is no point in using exact methods when there is not clarity in the concepts and issues to which they are to be applied."
The Hungarian-born Jewish genius is thought to be in the train of mathematical economics father Leon Walras but was far from a static equilibrist, Macrae informs us. Von Neumann's speculation about the need for a new mathematical language for economics is eye-opening (p. 264). Prof. Paul Samuelson, who died at the time I was reading "John von Neumann" (December 2009), disagreed (p. 266). Our author summarizes nicely von Neumann's teachings that the proper body of relations (as astronomy did for physics), combined with illuminating tools for expression (calculus) and visionary synthesizers (Newton and Brahe), has not yet formed in economic science. In honoring the wise Samuelson, we might ponder that his work may end up a significant portion of the scientific preparation for the new economics.
Von Neumann could have played the part of Isaac Newton in modern economics but chose to hang his hat elsewhere. Economics is much the weaker because of this road not taken. You'll have to read all of "John von Neumann" to reckon why the great scientist put other pursuits before economics. The times certainly beckoned (The Great Depression). Theoretical posturing is held out by Macrae - "On Keynesian macroeconomics in the 1930s, he (von Neumann) did not feel either side was mathematically proving its case, so he turned to other things." (p. 256).
The 1928 and 1937 papers of von Neumann as well as his book "Theory of Games and Economic Behavior" (written with Princeton University colleague Oskar Morgenstern, 1944) give several reasons to believe that "Johnny" (as Macrae repeatedly and annoyingly calls him) could have put Lord Keynes the spendaholic (alias Debt Vader) out with the trash. The public was ready for it - interest in game theory was such that the New York Times published a front-page story around the time of the book's publication. Imagine an economics so popular that it would be the talk of the water cooler yet of such profundity that it would blend with Joseph Schumpeter and Mises Austrian School explanations of rivalrous competition to finally crack the great wall of price competition stupidity maintained by bureaucrats and the legal system.
Yes, hard to believe. Alas, von Neumann was a brilliant comet racing through the skies above economics. Astronomers like Samuelson and his academic descendants (that's you and me) continue trying to grab something of his tail. The late, great MIT Nobel laureate concluded (p. 266) - "He was the incomparable Johnny von Neumann. He darted briefly into our domain, and it has never been the same since."
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad, not too good either, October 11, 2013
This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
This is not something I usually do, but I feel the need to write a review despite not finishing the book. It’s up to me now to justify this, and I hope the 3 stars and lack of “this book is soooooo boring they maked me read it in school” whining has convinced you to read it.

I read the first several chapters, up to “Johnny’s” undergraduate years, if I recall correctly (I’ve already dropped the book in a donation bin, so I can’t verify). As others have said, this is certainly a highly detailed biography and will satisfy all but the most curious and dedicated admirers--they’ll just have to read von Neumann’s own work. That brings me to my first little complaint: you’ll notice that a few of the other reviewers would have liked more discussion of von Neumann’s mathematics, but there’s a reason it’s missing--Macrae admits to not being able to understand it. Now this would be ok if he were a mathematician in another field who didn’t understand it in the way a mathematician would use the word, but once Macrae said something along the lines of not knowing much math beyond very basic first year undergrad stuff, I lost a lot of interest. This isn’t a modern mathematician writing glowingly and with a sense of awe about Archimedes or Gauss. Coming from someone who can’t understand von Neumann’s work, the writing just seems sycophantic. Macrae continually says what a brilliant man von Neumann was, and even though he clearly was, his praise still comes off as hyperbolic (then again, I don’t claim to be able to accurately judge things I don’t completely understand). On the one hand, Johnny apparently couldn’t come up with original ideas and admired men like Einstein who could. No, he had to be presented with an idea and then he’d run with it and expand it. Ok, nothing wrong with that since 99.99% of us have to be presented with an idea and never expand anything, but that seems to undermine the tremendous credit Johnny is given for just about everything (I mean, just read the title). This wouldn’t be so bad if MacRae didn’t undermine other brilliant men who didn’t agree with his politics, bringing me to my second, more serious, complaint.

The author’s description and ridiculous psychoanalysis of Norbert Wiener, a man a million times smarter than he and roughly on the same level as von Neumann, comes off as a petty swipe at a man who dared to be something of a pacifist. It’s frankly pathetic (google the Kirkus review of the book to see that I'm not the only one who feels this way). Why did Wiener turn out to be so misguided, according to Macrae? Because his parents (supposedly) didn’t have lively discussions at the dinner table and may have pushed Wiener, the child prodigy, to develop his talents. Maybe they did push him too hard—a common occurrence—but that’s debatable and Macrae extrapolates quite a bit here. He implies that men like von Neumann steered the world through the Cold War because they “really” understood how the world works, but one could argue that Wiener, with his realization that scientists should seriously consider the moral implications of their work, did just as much good as von Neumann. I’d say Vasili Arkhipov, the Soviet submarine officer who refused to launch a nuclear torpedo, was more of a Wiener than a von Neumann, but whatever, I won’t belabor the point any more.

So it wasn’t very good and it wasn't for me, but it’s not bad by any means, although the abundance of (often unnecessary) parenthetical remarks is somewhat annoying (I made a point to try to emulate the style of the book in this regard, and while I often use too many such remarks myself, if I was writing a major biography I’d consciously try to limit them). Since this book doesn’t seem to have much competition, I’d say you can read it with the confidence that it’s essentially correct, but take it with a grain of salt. Maybe reading up on other pioneers like Turing and Wiener will give some more perspective on von Neumann.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Mind Expanding, June 18, 2014
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This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
There is so much to learn about society from the perspective of one individual. I sought to discover how John Von Neumann was created by his environment, but I found the factors in his death to be the most telling experience of our old society.

I would recommend this book to anyone researching how to influence positive change.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Through Biography, August 30, 2010
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This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
After reading two chapters it is obvious that the biography was very well researched. It does provide an in depth insight into John Von Neuman but fell short in detailing the positive effects of all his abilities. I wish the author had gone into greater detail about his work in mathematics and computer science.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars John Von Neumann, January 25, 2008
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This review is from: John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (Paperback)
An outstanding book in all respects. Provides an inside look at what transpired in the making of the A-Bomb. Also includes numerous other contributions made by this mathematical genius.
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