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The Man from the Future

Recipient profile picture Ananyo Bhattacharya
15 September
Dear Ananyo Bhattacharya,
I wanted to thank you for writing The Man from the Future. I got my copy on Audible and thoroughly enjoyed listening to your tale of the legendary John von Neumann. You did a marvelous job weaving his personal story in between the lines of history and science. (And I hope you will take on more projects like this in the near future. I look forward to reading them.)  To me at least, von Neumann’s brilliance is almost unfathomable. How can one man walk across so many disciplines, from mathematics to physics to computer science to economics, and make contribution aftercontribution? My simple brain just cannot imagine what it must be like to be a genius like him. From your viewpoint, is someone like von Neumann a historical anomaly? Or is there more that we can do as a society and education system to produce minds of that caliber? The psychologist Laszlo Polgar believed, for example, that geniuses can be created if they start their vocation from young and with intensity. To prove his point with a small sample, all of his three daughters, Susan, Sofia, and Judit, were chess prodigies. Judit, in particular, went on to hold the title for best female chess player in the world for more than twenty years. But can Polgar’s beliefs be extended to the population in general?  Your book suggests that von Neumann himself was an incredible prodigy from a very young age. But a young von Neumann is not born knowing how to converse in Ancient Greek. Clearly, he was taught and supported. So it seems like von Neumman was also in an environment that allowed him to nurture and pursue his gifts. Interestingly, the secondary school he attended, the Fasori Gimnázium in Hungary, seems to have produced many notable alumni as well. They include Eugene Wigneer, Edward Teller, John Harsanyi, Alfred Haar and Andrew Grove. Surely something special was cooking in those classrooms. My suspicion, however, is that the average school is still designed to get kids to some acceptable baseline level, as opposed to maximizing their individual potential. For many parents, teachers, and governments, ‘good-enough’ is ‘good-enough’. Of course, this is an unfortunate but perhaps unavoidable trade-off. Most parents and schools, as well-meaning as they may be, are limited by their time, resources and networks. For this reason, there are probably many young von-Neumanns-in-hiding who may never get the opportunity to realize their latent interests and abilities.  But I am more curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Your views would be particularly interesting given the research you’ve put into the life of von Neumann and others. Are there any striking similarities in the development or upbringing of these great scientists? Are the cross-walking feats of von Neumann replicable in the twenty-first century, given that the branches of science appear to require even more specialization today?  Warm regards, Tobias P.S. I’m not sure if you agree, but I hope somebody will produce a television drama on these twentieth century scientists. The lives and personalities of von Neummann, Einstein, Feynman, Oppenheimer, and others are far too interesting to be ignored. Sources [1] László Polgár (Wikipedia) [2] Fasori Gimnázium (Wikipedia)

Tobias Lim

Author profile picture Tobias Lim
25 November
Dear Tobias Lim,

Thank you for taking the time to write such a thought-provoking letter, and of course for the compliments. It is heartening to see ‘The Man from the Future’ getting into the right hands (or ears).

I will do my best to address your questions but I must begin by saying that, despite living with Johnny in my head for several years, my brain cannot fathom what it must be like to be a genius of his calibre either. We can both comfort ourselves with the knowledge that of the incredible constellation of brilliant minds that von Neumann interacted with over the years, from his old friends Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller to his colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study, Kurt Gödel and Albert Einstein, none came close to understanding the quickness of his mind, nor matching the sheer breadth of his contributions.

Arguably, no scientist or mathematician before von Neumann ranged as successfully as he did across so many disparate fields and I doubt now that any ever will, for the reasons you allude to in your letter—science has exploded into myriad specialisms that even a mathematical genius of his stature would struggle to master, let alone advance.

While we cannot really grasp what it was like to have a brain as fast as von Neumann’s, what I think we can do is understand the mathematical, scientific and historical context of his work and so reconstruct why he took on the problems he did and how he was able to revolutionise so many fields during his short life. This was of course the object of ‘The Man from the Future’—to show how von Neumann’s youthful contributions to the foundational crisis in mathematics and the seemingly abstruse paradoxes involving infinite sets discovered by Bertrand Russell and others, would equip him with the tools he would need to attack real-world problems in later life.

It seems to me that like no one else before or since, von Neumann could take seemingly intractable, complex situations and turn them into problems of mathematical logic, which he could then solve. And out of that process came the programmable computer, the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the first computer simulations, game theory, self-reproducing machines, weather forecasting and the mathematical foundations of quantum theory. There were better mathematicians than von Neumann, and there are today—if success in mathematics equates to producing elegant theorems. But no mathematician, I believe, has so successfully applied their art to so many different aspects of the material world with such far-reaching consequences.

Von Neumann may have been born with a love for applying maths in this way but I think it’s more likely that his upbringing played a major role in developing this aspect of his personality. His father, Max, was a doctor of law turned investment banker who sometimes literally brought his work home with him. When he financed a newspaper business, for example, he brought back pieces of metal type, and the ensuing discussion centred on the printing press. Another venture to win Max’s support was the Hungaria Jacquard Textile Weaving Factory, an importer of automated looms. These Jacquard looms could be ‘programmed’ with punched cards and would later inspire early computer pioneers, including von Neumann himself. Max’s investment decisions were discussed with his sons’ over lunch.

I suspect that these conversations did much to stimulate young Johnny’s interest in practical applications and his interest in money (he loved the stuff). We can’t provide every mathematical genius with wealthy, interesting, nurturing parents but if, as a society, we want more worldly mathematicians, rather than individuals who are content to prove theorems, then we might have to fund better remunerated doctoral and post-doctoral positions to tempt them to enter academia. Today, a brain like von Neumann’s might be more likely to apply itself to areas where money is easier to come by like the financial sector (in London at least).

It is true that the schools in Budapest were von Neumann and fellow Hungarian geniuses like Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller and Leo Szilard were educated are much envied. But the benefits of these elite, private institutions were not usually available to girls nor to those who could not afford their fees. The Lutheran school that von Neumann attended charged Calvinist students twice the basic fee and Catholics three times as much. Jewish pupils had to pay five times the fee (but still comprised the majority of students). 

While it might be fair to say that there are few schools today that offer the same standard of education as those elite schools, I would suppose that the average Hungarian is far more educated today than in von Neumann’s day thanks to the fact that education is accessible to a much larger tranche of the population. The chances, I think, of a genius being spotted today are higher in many countries than ever before. I would hope a modern day Srinivasa Ramanujan, for example, would have an easier, less isolated path to higher mathematics than the actual Ramanujan did.

You mention Laszlo Polgar, and the intensive programme of chess education that he instituted for his three incredible daughters. I have never been able to swallow his contention that “geniuses are made, not born”. Geniuses have to be both made [i]and [/i]born. 

Polgar was a clever man and it seems reasonable to assume that his daughters were too. It is interesting that he chose to drill his daughters in chess rather than mathematics as the evidence I have seen suggests that ‘raw intelligence’ (if you think that can be measured) is correlated with skill at chess in youngsters but not in adults. That is, grandmasters are generally of above average intelligence but their skill at the game does not closely track their IQ score. You don’t necessarily have to be a genius to achieve chess mastery. The reason for this is obvious to anyone who has taught a child how to play: beyond a certain point, those willing to study and practice progress, leaving behind others who, on paper, may be smarter than them. I suspect that for mathematics that is not true. While anyone can learn to become a better mathematician, high mathematical ability is more closely allied with IQ. It is impossible to read much about von Neumann and not reach the conclusion that his genius was a fluke of genetics. But the fact that he used his genius in the way he did is surely tied to his upbringing and education. It’s both Nature and Nurture of course.

While modern societies can always do more to foster gifted individuals there is, at least in a democracy, a balance to be struck between how much the state spends on educating the majority versus the money it might spend on a few gifted individuals (even if the returns on that investment might be greater). Still, I agree more could be done.

There are programmes for mathematically gifted students in some [url=]countries[/url] and perhaps there should be a [url=]formal process[/url] for finding them in primary schools. Here I must also mention science writer Simon Singh’s excellent [url=]Parallel Project[/url] which is funded through his charity, Good Thinking, and aims to raise interest in mathematics in secondary school children broadly and also help highly numerate kids achieve their potential. 

More broadly, I think all prospective university students should be required to continue studying some mathematics and logic until they leave school. It’s a sure sign that I’m becoming an old curmudgeon that I find a lot of fuzzy thinking parading as scholarship in many fields outside of mathematics, philosophy and the natural sciences. It's a simple step that I think might help the next generation be better [url=]baloney detectors[/url]. 

To return to your question, one aspect of the elite Hungarian school system that impressed me was the close links they fostered with local universities. As historian Tibor Frank [url=]writes[/url], “High school teachers themselves were expected to do original research and be published regularly both in and out of Hungary. The most eminent teachers were invited to give university courses; some even became professors and were elected members of the Hungarian Academy. The faculty of the best high schools in Budapest enjoyed a privileged position and high social prestige.”

In this regard, it is heartening to see [url=]a[/url] [url=,under-represented%20in%20STEM%20careers.]handful[/url] [url=]of[/url] [url=]universities[/url] in England partnering with local schools to provide a specialist mathematical education to talented students. In time, I hope there will be more.

I think John von Neumann was indeed a historical anomaly and there will not be any more like him. He was born at the right time, at a unique juncture of twentieth century science when it was possible for a genius of his ability to contribute meaningfully to a huge swathe of different disciplines. Furthermore, he had the good fortune to be born into a wealthy, well-connected, nurturing family that stressed the importance of education. But that does not mean there is nothing for the rest of us to learn from his childhood that might help future von Neumanns, as well as the rest of us mere mortals.

Warm regards,


PS I am very much looking forward to Nolan’s Oppenheimer though sadly I think John von Neumann will not appear. I would love to see more dramas about twentieth century mathematicians and scientists though I fear that there would be a temptation for some directors to make a hash of it. See ‘[url=]A Beautiful Mind[/url]’ for details.

Ananyo Bhattacharya

Ananyo Bhattacharya
4 December
Dear Ananyo Bhattacharya,

[highlight=transparent]Dear Ananyo,[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]Thank you so much for making the time to write back. I really enjoyed reading what you had to say. And I’m sure that others will too. You gave me a lot to ponder about.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]You are right, of course. The education systems of advanced economies today are generally better than they were before. And there is certainly more opportunity for women and minorities to flourish. While we still have a long way to go, we have made good progress on many fronts of society and education.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]Still, I wonder how many more geniuses we might have if we could replicate the upbringing that von Neumann had. We agree, for instance, that it is easier to spot a prodigy today. But I cannot help but wonder how much potential in children stays dormant due to our inability to maximize their learning and inclinations during the sensitive periods of their brain development. It is no wonder that geniuses are rare when so many things in nature, nurture, and chance have to go just right over many years or generations even.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]You mention Srinivasa Ramanujan, who is certainly a fascinating case. I could not find much information on his upbringing online. So I wonder how much his parents and teachers played in his prodigy and cultivation. At the very least, it seems that he had access to a lot of books, which helped him to nurture his unique brand in mathematics. I also wonder what kind of mathematical career he might have had later in life with better nutrition, healthcare, and advanced training. I am struck by one of his [/highlight][color=rgb(17, 85, 204)][highlight=transparent][url=]letters to G.H. Hardy[/url][/highlight][/color][highlight=transparent] in which he writes: “I am already a half starving man. To preserve my brains I want food.” To die at the age of thirty-two with so much potential is just so sad.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]It does warm me, however, to hear of initiatives like the Parallel Project and the Liverpool Maths School. Perhaps in time, we can extend these programs to more vocations, more age-groups, and more walks of life. But it will take time. I think society is only beginning to tap into the potential of education. And delivering effective education at scale is no easy thing.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]I believe Laszlo Polgar elected chess for his daughters because it was the intellectual vocation with the smallest number of uncontrollable variables. For one, it is easy to measure our success in chess via the ELO ratings system. We can say with confidence when somebody is a good player, a great player, or a genius in chess. But the spectrum is less obvious in mathematics or science. How many publications or prizes would the Polgar sisters need to justify such a claim? In chess, we are also somewhat less dependent on unreliable variables like one’s birthplace, connections, institutions, supervisors, wealth, and research opportunities. Personally, there is also something symbolic about Judit Polgar’s achievements in a head-to-head sport that was once dominated almost exclusively by arrogant and often sexist men.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]You write, however, that one does not “necessarily have to be a genius to achieve chess mastery”. But I think that depends on how strictly we define mastery or genius. True, “high mathematical ability [may be] more closely allied with IQ” and the traditional genius, as you say. But that may be because mathematics is also more general-purpose than chess. After all, math is the language of logic and science. And it is a readily transferable one at that.  This problem of generalizability is also probably why Michael Jordan was transcendent in basketball but abysmal in baseball.  And John von Neumann, likewise, for all his genius and cross-walking feats, would surely fail as a professional Formula One driver if we recall your humorous anecdotes on his driving prowess.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]I do believe that geniuses arise in all walks of life, from chess to football to filmmaking. (Although these forms of genius may not lend itself to cross-walking as mathematics does for the likes of von Neumman.) I cannot help but watch the grandmaster games of Mikhail Tal, Bobby Fischer, or Magnus Carlsen in awe. They play chess with a type of creativity and personality that does appear to be replicable through training alone. That said, the chess schools of India and China seem to be producing an ever-growing number of creative world class talent. Perhaps in time their results may help to further clarify the nature-nurture debate.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]Genius comes in degrees, of course. And von Neumann does seem to be one of a kind. A historical anomaly. A man from the future. I remember reading his transcript for ‘The Computer and the Brain’ and wondering what other mischief this brilliant man might have gotten up to had life given him just a bit more time. Thankfully, we can also take solace in knowing that humanity is built in with some redundancy. If Charles Darwin was felled by illness or accident or the wrong track, we would have Alfred Russel Wallace to take the mantle. Sure, we might need a legion of men and women to fill von Neumann’s cross-walking shoes had he not existed. But I believe humanity would have filled in some of the gaps, sooner or later, one way or another.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]Ananyo, I am perhaps a bit more optimistic now, having had time to mull over our letters. But given the amount of knowledge one must assimilate before reaching the frontier of science, cross-walking may favor the collaborative team over the brilliant lonewolf. Perhaps what we need now are more scientists with a genius for people.[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]But if I had to bet on a future cross-walking individual, I would put my money on a quantitative biologist or computer scientist with a strong theoretical bent—a flexible contrarian who marches to the beat of his or her own drum. Such a daring person may have what it takes to bring the trees of biology, neuroscience, computing, artificial intelligence, and economics into a single garden. I think we are seeing inklings of this already in the mathematics for networks and the science of complex systems. But there must still be tremendous room for cross-pollination and cross-walking in these fields. Will such an individual or team “range as successfully” as von Neumann? Probably not, as for reasons you’ve already explained. But it will be nonetheless inspiring. I hope to live long enough to see some of it. [/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]To your broader point, my instinct is to agree with you that students should study some more math and logic until they leave school. On the other hand, I also worry about a world in which everyone thinks like a Godelian logician. Might society lose something else in turn? What might happen to art or music or cinema? But if the goal is to constrain the baloney and charlatans that surround us, then I actually feel it more prudent that students take more subjects in history, anthropology, biology and ethics. The imperative, as I see it, is to foster an intuition for intellectual honesty and a wide-ranging perspective of our complex world. For the average classroom, I would cut back on William Shakespeare, and add more Martin Luther King Jr, more Charles Darwin, more George Orwell, and the likes. I’m not sure if you and others would agree?[/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]Either way, thank you again for giving myself and others so much food for thought, both in your wonderful book and letter. I know you are a busy man. So I will not be offended if you do not reply. But I do humbly request that you write another book someday, if it pleases you. [/highlight]

[highlight=transparent]Warm regards and happy holidays,[/highlight]


[highlight=transparent]PS. I too am excited for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer film next year. I think he has the track record to get the story right. The later years of Oppenheimer’s story is well suited to Nolan’s mind-bending style. At the very least, it should be nothing like Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. Still, I hope there will be more well-meaning attempts at portraying the history of science. Perhaps they can engage you as an advisor on set someday. :) [/highlight]

Tobias Lim

Tobias Lim

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