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Engineering Tribute: John Von Neumann

August 28, 2020

Born in December 1903 to an affluent Jewish family, John Von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, and engineer. A childhood prodigy, Von Neumann is said to have possessed a photographic memory, able to memorize a page from a telephone book and recite its numbers and addresses. By the time of his death in 1957, he not only revolutionized several subfields of mathematics and physics but also made foundational contributions to pure economics and statistics, as well as playing a key role in the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear energy and computing.

Regarded as the premier mathematician of his time and one of the greatest modern history has to offer, his gifts took him to places that would influence the world of economics, quantum theory, and even pioneer game theory: a theoretical framework for conceiving social situations among competing players. In other words, the science of strategy.

He learned languages and mathematics from tutors and attended Budapest’s most prestigious secondary school, the Lutheran Gymnasium. Upon completion of von Neumann’s secondary schooling in 1921, his father discouraged him from pursuing a career in mathematics, concerned about the financial stability it would offer. As a compromise, Von Neumann studied both chemistry and mathematics earning a degree in chemical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute in Zürich and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Budapest in 1926. Hungary was not an easy place to live for people of Jewish descent, and there was a limit on the number of Jewish students who could enter the University. It was Von Neumann’s academic achievements at such a young age that won him a place in the institution despite the quota.

Von Neumann passed away at the relatively young age of 53. He lived a life famously dedicated to cognitive and creative pursuits, but also the enjoyments of life. Listing the range of honours he was endowed with is nearly impossible. Von Neumann received two Presidential Awards, the Medal for Merit in 1947 and the Medal for Freedom in 1956. In 1956 he received the Albert Einstein Commemorative Award and the Enrico Fermi as well. He held the Gibbs Lectureship of the American Mathematical Society in 1947 and was President of the Society in 1951 to 1953. The list goes on and on.

Simply put, John Von Neumann was a genius, a virtuoso, an Einstein if you will, and undoubtedly a figure worth studying. We at Zen Maker Lab encourage you to do so, in the hopes that you too will be inspired the same way we are, and one day change the world.

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