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The Man from the Future - Ananyo Bhattacharya *****

There are very few individuals who have made such wide contributions to mathematical and scientific topics as did John von Neumann. In this splendid scientific biography, Ananyo Bhattacharya introduces to many for the first time both von Neumann's work and life.

It's easy to get the balance between the life and the science wrong with this kind of biography - Bhattacharya keeps it just right, filling in all the biographical details we need, without falling into the trap of giving us endless boring detail of the von Neumann family's background. Similarly, with a couple of small exceptions I'll mention later, the description of his work is at a level that remains approachable with a bit of effort from the reader, yet we are given enough information to see just how important and novel von Neumann's contribution was.

The significantly more famous Richard Feynman is probably the only twentieth century scientist I can think of with the breadth of interests and originality of von Neumann, though approaching things from the viewpoint of a physicist rather than a mathematician. Feynman was a much better communicator, and probably seemed more approachable to someone who wasn't a world class mind than von Neumann - but it's impossible not to be bowled over by von Neumann's breadth of application.

We start off with his work on set theory in pure mathematics, but where von Neumann really triumphed was in applied mathematics. He starts by making a significant contribution to the development of quantum physics and its mathematical basis. He pretty much devises game theory and makes major contributions to its application in various fields. He is a big player in the Manhattan Project, devising mathematical methods to model nuclear reactions and bomb structures. He is instrumental in the development of electronic computers. And he makes large contributions to the concept of self-replicating automata - devices that can produce copies of themselves and hence, effectively, reproduce like living organisms.

One small issue with the book is that Battacharya gets a bit carried away with the automata, spending far too much time on something that still hasn't achieved anything practical, and telling us far too much about others such as Conway and Wolfram who were inspired by von Neumann, but aren't part of his story. The other negative I'd say is that some of the explanations of the mathematics need a bit more detail to be accessible - as stated it's hard to really get your head around what's being described (and that's even in topics I know a reasonable amount about).

However, these small concerns don't get in the way of this being a very readable and enjoyable scientific biography of someone who, outside those working in related fields such as computer science or game theory, has not had the public awareness that he deserves. It's a great addition to the popular science bookshelf.

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly email free here


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