The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

"This was where Jancsi would make his way through the library’s centrepiece, the Allgemeine Geschichte, a massive history of the world edited by the German historian Wilhelm Oncken, which began in Ancient Egypt and concluded with a biography of Wilhelm I, the first German emperor, commissioned by the Kaiser himself. When von Neumann became embroiled in American politics after he emigrated, he would sometimes avoid arguments that were threatening to become too heated by citing (sometimes word for word) the outcome of some obscurely related affair in antiquity that he had read about in Oncken as a child."

"He was able to see intuitively the logical essence of problems and then to use the simple rules of logic to solve the problems."

"Their lives were temporarily disrupted by a coup and the establishment in 1918 of Europe’s first communist government (after Russia), led by Béla Kun, a non-practising Hungarian Jew who had become a convert to the revolutionary cause as a Russian prisoner of war."

"‘My opinions have been violently opposed to Marxism ever since I remember,’ he told a congressional confirmation hearing in 1955, after he was nominated to the Atomic Energy Commission, ‘and quite in particular since I had about a three-month taste of it in Hungary in 1919.’"

"What Bolyai and Lobachevsky had discovered is now known as hyperbolic geometry. Whereas the sort of surface for which all five of Euclid’s postulates hold is flat, like a sheet of paper, a hyperbolic surface curves away from itself everywhere like a saddle. Picture one of those well-known stackable potato-crisps or the wrinkled fruiting body of a wood ear mushroom. On these sorts of surfaces, many of the familiar rules of school geometry no longer hold: the three angles of a triangle, for instance, add up to less than 180°. ‘Out of nothing,’ wrote Bolyai to his father, ‘I have created a strange new universe.’"

"Anxious to make his name with a big discovery, Schrödinger worked through a two-week tryst with an ex-lover in an Alpine resort that Christmas, returning to Zurich in January to apply his new wave equation to some of the key problems that were being thrown up by atomic physics. ‘A late erotic outburst’ was how Hermann Weyl, a close friend of Schrödinger (and his wife’s lover), would describe the deluge of academic papers that were to follow. Among them was a complete description of the hydrogen atom spectrum based on his theory and a version of his equation that showed how the waves evolved over time."

"In the spring of 1925, there had been no theory that adequately described the physics of the atom. Less than twelve months later, there were two. Both theories seemed to do the job but were so different that many physicists wondered if they could both really be correct."

"Von Neumann was the first to crack it, showing decisively that wave and matrix mechanics were fundamentally the same theory."

"The scheme to entice the two Hungarians had been cooked up by Oswald Veblen, a distinguished Princeton professor of mathematics. America was an intellectual backwater and Veblen wanted to change that by poaching some of Europe’s most brilliant mathematicians with the offer of huge American salaries. He had secured millions of dollars from the Rockefeller foundation and wealthy private donors to erect a grand new building, named Fine Hall, for the mathematics department."

"‘Jancsi felt at home in America from the first day,’ Wigner continued. ‘He was a cheerful man, an optimist who loved money and believed firmly in human progress. Such men were far more common in the United States than in the Jewish circles of central Europe.’"

"Dirac, on the other hand, felt that quantum theory was not the whole story. ‘I think,’ he told his audience during a lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1975, ‘that it is quite likely that at some future time we may get an improved quantum mechanics in which there will be a return to determinism and which will, therefore, justify the Einstein point of view.’80 Today, we know that Dirac was almost certainly wrong, and the hopes of Einstein were misplaced. There may yet be a better theory than quantum mechanics, but thanks to Bell’s work and the experiments that followed, we know that non-locality will be part and parcel of it. Conversely, von Neumann’s cautious conservatism appears with hindsight the correct attitude. There is no proof yet for a deeper alternative to the quantum theory that von Neumann helped to forge more than a hundred years ago. All the experiments to date have revealed no hidden variables, nothing to suggest causality reasserts itself at some deeper level. As far as we know, it’s quantum all the way down."

"As the sacked professors departed, the seventy-one-year-old mathematician accompanied them to the train station and told them their exile could not last long. ‘I am writing to the minister to tell him what the foolish authorities have done.’ The minister in question was, unfortunately, Bernhard Rust, who was instrumental in initiating the purges. Next year, when Rust attended a banquet at Göttingen, he asked Hilbert whether it was true that mathematics had suffered after the removal of Jews. ‘Suffered?’ replied Hilbert. ‘It hasn’t suffered, Herr Minister. It just doesn’t exist anymore.’88 Hilbert would die of natural causes a decade later in wartime Germany."

"Von Neumann proposed, in his way, two years later. ‘You and I could have a lot of fun together,’ he told her, ‘for instance, you like to drink wine and so do I.’"

"The arm of the OSRD charged with nuclear work morphed into what became known as the Manhattan Project. The massive effort to build the atom bomb, codenamed Project Y, would cost the US $2 billion (more than $20 billion today) and at its height employ more than 100,000 people.24 In September 1942, the forty-six-year-old Army engineer Leslie Groves was appointed to lead it. The very next month, Groves chose Oppenheimer to head the top-secret laboratory that would develop the bomb."

"Oppenheimer was not an obvious choice. A theorist with little experience of managing a large team, he would somehow have to exert his authority over scientists, many of whom had Nobel Prizes. Worst of all, from the military’s standpoint, he was a left-winger whose closest associates – his girlfriend, wife, brother and sister-in-law – had been, and perhaps still were, members of the Communist Party."

"Von Neumann arrived on the mesa in September, a couple of months after receiving Oppenheimer’s letter. His ideas ‘woke everybody up’, recalls Charles Critchfield, a mathematical physicist and ballistics expert who worked on the gun projects.31 First, von Neumann pointed out that Neddermeyer’s implosion experiments revealed little about how a real device would actually behave. The shock wave in those experiments, he explained, could be made more symmetrical by simply increasing the explosive charge surrounding the tubes. A more sophisticated approach to testing was required. Second, von Neumann suggested a better design for the implosion device, consisting of wedge-shaped charges arranged around the plutonium. Detonated simultaneously, the charges would produce focused jets that would compress the core far more quickly than simply packing it with high explosives. He consulted Teller, who had been annoying his Los Alamos neighbours with impromptu late-night piano recitals since his arrival in March. The pair came to the conclusion that, in this configuration, an implosion device would be far more efficient than a gun-type weapon: less plutonium would be required to produce an explosion of equivalent magnitude. This was big news: purifying sufficient quantities of uranium and plutonium for bombs was a major bottleneck of the project."

"Von Neumann continued to spend about a third of his time on the bomb. He was perhaps the only scientist with full knowledge of the project who was allowed to come and go from Los Alamos as he pleased."

"The spring of 1944 brought unwelcome news for the scientists racing to develop a plutonium bomb. The Jewish-Italian nuclear physicist Emilio Segrè, who had worked with Fermi in Rome, had uncovered a problem with samples of plutonium produced by reactors in Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. With three graduate students, Segrè had been studying the fission rates of plutonium batches in a log cabin some 14 miles from Los Alamos. Within days of receiving their first batch of reactor-plutonium the team found spontaneous fission rates to be five times higher than that from cyclotrons. As Oppenheimer had feared, a gun-type weapon made with plutonium would not work.33 The Thin Man device was abandoned."

"‘That was at least 5,000 tons and probably a lot more,’ von Neumann said quietly. Fermi had ripped a sheet of paper into pieces, letting them fall when the air blast hit. They were blown about 8 feet. Consulting a table he had prepared earlier, he declared the blast equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT. They were both off. The best estimates of Trinity’s power put the figure somewhere between 20,000 and 22,000 tons."

"On the morning of the Trinity test, Little Boy had set sail for Tinian, a Japanese island, 1,500 miles from Tokyo, taken by American forces the previous summer."

"Whatever the reasons, had the émigré scientists working on the Manhattan Project known that the ultimate destination of the bomb they were helping to build was Imperial Japan rather than Nazi Germany, many might have quit – or never joined at all."

"Shortly after the end of the war, Stalin asked Truman to grant his ‘modest wish’ to occupy Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island. Truman refused. Possession of the atom bomb had stiffened the resolve of the American government."

"The Target Committee had recommended a detonation height of 2,400 feet for a 15 kiloton bomb for maximum effect.37 More powerful bombs do more damage when exploded at greater altitude, but no one could predict with any certainty the yields of Little Boy or Fat Man. Von"

"The explosion, equivalent to about 17,000 tons of TNT, and the resulting firestorm killed some 70,000 people, mostly civilians. Many thousands more would die from burns and radiation poisoning by the end of the year."

"The Enola Gay took to the skies again three days later, this time acting as the weather reconnaissance aircraft for Bockscar, the B-29 bomber carrying Fat Man. The skies over Kokura, initially clear, clouded over with smoke from Yahata, firebombed the previous day. After three unsuccessful attempts to drop its payload, Bockscar flew on to the secondary target of Nagasaki. Here, too, Bockscar’s bombardier struggled to sight the target. With fuel running low, the crew dropped Fat Man through a last-minute break in the clouds into a valley in the north of the city, nearly 2 miles north of its aiming point. When the bomb detonated at an altitude of about 1,650 feet (500 metres), the people of Nagasaki were therefore partly shielded from the 21 kiloton blast by the intervening hillside. Estimates of the death toll vary from 60,000 to 80,000."

"Little Boy and Fat Man claimed more lives in minutes than the senseless firebombing of Dresden by hundreds of Allied (mostly British) aircraft. No decision of such magnitude should pass into the annals of history unscrutinized, and no schoolchild taught to accept uncritically that the horrors visited on the citizens of those two cities can be justified. ‘The experience of these two cities’, concludes a study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki written by Japanese scientists and doctors some thirty-six years after the bombings ‘was the opening chapter to the possible annihilation of mankind.’39"

"He reflected on his time there with brutal honesty in his autobiography. ‘I began to look backward and ask myself how it happened that I let myself become involved in this crazy game of murder,’ he says. ‘Since the beginning of the war I had been retreating step by step from one moral position to another, until at the end I had no moral position at all.’40 The story of the Second World War as a whole is, likewise, one of progressive moral retreat; the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a last hideous refutation of the idea that the lives of civilians mattered, and that any war could be ‘ethical’."

"Heisenberg would say after the war that moral scruples had prevented him from pushing ahead, but there is little evidence that is true. He was a German nationalist through and through. True, he was not enthusiastic about giving Hitler the bomb but he would have done his utmost to do so had he believed there was any danger that the Allies would secure one first. This was an outcome he dismissed because he thought Germany was well ahead of other nations in nuclear research. As it was. Until 1933."

"it would also be unethical from the point of view of the scientists not to do what they know is feasible, no matter what terrible consequences it may have."

"He had won a scholarship to study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and without bothering to finish his undergraduate degree he earned a PhD in physics from there in 1932."

"The result of his musings, First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, would become the most influential document in the history of computing.16 ‘Today,’ says computer scientist Wolfgang Coy, ‘it is considered the birth certificate of modern computers.’17"

"Computer designers now refer to the whole configuration as the ‘von Neumann architecture’, and nearly all computers in use today – smart phones, laptops, desktops – are built according to its precepts. The design’s fundamental drawback, now called the ‘von Neumann bottleneck’, is that instructions or data have to be found and fetched serially from memory – like standing in a line, and being able to pass messages only forwards or backwards. That task takes much longer than any subsequent processing."

"The report Goldstine circulated had only the name of John von Neumann on its title page. Eckert and Mauchly, who were hoping to patent aspects of computer design, were furious. The ENIAC’s inventors accused von Neumann of inflating his contribution to the project and rehashing their work."

"Their bitterness lived on long after von Neumann’s death. ‘He sold all our ideas through the back door to IBM,’ Eckert complained in 1977.47"

"The battle for ownership of the intellectual property and patent rights relating to the ENIAC and EDVAC would drag on for decades. Von Neumann would have been satisfied by the judge’s eventual verdict, delivered on 19 October 1973. The automatic electronic digital computer was held to be in the public domain."

"The EDVAC is best known as a theoretical machine, described in von Neumann’s report. Nevertheless a real computer called the EDVAC was shipped to the BRL in 1949. Without the leadership of Eckert and Mauchly or of von Neumann and Goldstine, the machine had become steadily more baroque, amassing more vacuum tubes as successive project teams moved away from the austere architecture described in the First Draft. Beset by technical problems, the bloated EDVAC only began computing anything useful three years after its arrival at Aberdeen."

"he persuaded them that all details of the project should be made public by arguing that the surest and fastest path to the powerful machines they needed would be through allowing others to learn from his embryonic project."

"suppose you are not interested in mathematics anymore,’ Wataghin teased. ‘I hear you are now thinking about nothing but bombs.’56 ‘That is quite wrong,’ von Neumann replied. ‘I am thinking about something much more important than bombs. I am thinking about computers.’"

"I think it is soberly true to say that the existence of such a computer would open up to mathematicians, physicists, and other scholars areas of knowledge in the same remarkable way that the two-hundred-inch telescope promises to bring under observation universes which are at present entirely outside the range of any instrument now existing.58"

"Von Neumann and Ulam had in the meantime developed a new technique that harnessed the laws of chance to provide approximate answers to equations that could not be solved exactly by traditional means. Klári’s task would be to bring the ENIAC’s number-crunching power to bear on the mathematics of neutrons diffusing inside a nuclear weapon, which was precisely a problem of this sort. She must have been tickled to hear that the new technique was coincidentally named the ‘Monte Carlo’ method, after the town where she and Johnny had first met."

"Klári returned to the BRL in October. Historians have recently recovered the complete program for this second Monte Carlo run: twenty-eight pages of code written in Klári’s hand."

"solo trip to Los Alamos followed in December, but the stress of defending her work before the likes of Teller and Fermi nearly tipped Klári over the edge. Finding her ‘catastrophically depressed’ during a telephone call, von Neumann wrote to her, professing himself ‘scared out of my wits’ with worry. Nonetheless, less than six months later, she travelled to Chicago to work with theoretical physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer, a future Nobel laureate, on possible refinements to the Monte Carlo algorithm. Mayer’s ideas for improving the calculations were ultimately rejected. With little time left on the ENIAC to run the Monte Carlo simulations that Los Alamos wanted, von Neumann opted to play it safe and avoid new, and potentially troublesome, refinements."

"The full scope of Klári’s contributions to the early days of computing have only recently come to light. Run on an ENIAC emulator today, her Monte Carlo code reliably spits out the expected numbers, virtually plotting the fates of neutrons inside the implosion bomb that von Neumann had helped build."

"Within that program is a ‘closed subroutine’ – a type of loop that is executed whenever it is referenced from the main body of the program. The invention of the closed subroutine is generally credited to computer scientist David Wheeler, but Klári’s code made use of one at least a year earlier, to generate random numbers by von Neumann’s ‘method of middle-squares’."

"There can be little doubt, however, that Klári’s Monte Carlo code is the first truly useful, complex modern program ever to have been executed."

"In 1938, he says, ‘IBM was a very mechanically-orientated company and the notion of electronic computing was almost repugnant.’81 Spurred by von Neumann and the numerous computers springing up in the wake of his project, the company rapidly changed course, producing digital stored-program machines in the EDVAC mould. The IBM 701 was, says Bigelow, ‘a carbon copy of our machine’.82 By the 1960s, IBM manufactured about 70 per cent of the world’s electronic computers. ‘Probably’, Teller told his biographers, ‘the IBM company owes half its money to Johnny von Neumann.’83"

"By a quirk of history, the individual who had perhaps the deepest understanding of the logical and mathematical underpinnings of the modern computer also had the power, influence and managerial skills to build one, as well as the good sense to ensure that the race to faster, more powerful machines he initiated was run (at least to begin with) in public."

"Von Neumann was rational. At times some may have thought him too rational."

"The two agreed that until the age of twelve, Marina would live with her mother and spend holidays with her father. After that, when she was ‘approaching the age of reason’, Marina would live with her father to receive the benefit of his genius.1 ‘It was a thoughtful and well-intentioned agreement,’ Marina says in her memoirs, ‘but they were too inexperienced to realize that adolescence is often the stage in life farthest removed from the age of reason.’"

"Her father’s letters, Marina notes, often reflected his ‘lifelong desire to impose order and rationality on an inherently disorderly and irrational world’."

"And I naturally said to him, since I am an enthusiastic chess player, ‘You mean, the theory of games like chess?’ ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘Chess is not a game. Chess is a well-defined form of computation. You may not be able to work out the answers, but in theory there must be a solution, a right procedure in any position. Now real games,’ he said, ‘are not like that at all. Real life is not like that. Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory.4"

"Foremost among the great chess strategists was the legendary Prussian player Emanuel Lasker, who was the world champion for twenty-seven years from 1894. Lasker’s first love was mathematics, which he studied at Berlin, Heidelberg and Göttingen, where David Hilbert took him under his wing. Despite Hilbert’s patronage and a string of impressive papers, Lasker struggled to get a permanent position in Germany because he was Jewish. After temporary lectureships in Manchester and New Orleans, he began to earn a living by playing chess and pursued mathematics in his spare time."

"Ultimately, he writes, their aim would be to render war obsolete by providing rational methods for reaching agreements.9 Some have suggested game theory was the product of cynical minds. One could argue that, on the contrary, at the root of the discipline was the naive hope that mathematics could help forge lasting peace."

"Von Neumann coined the term ‘zero-sum’ to describe such games of total conflict, in which one person’s loss is the other’s gain. One indication of the influence of game theory is that ‘zero-sum’ has now passed into the vernacular."

"‘Other mathematicians prove what they can,’ she declared, ‘von Neumann proves what he wants.’19"

"Von Neumann’s ‘Expanding Economy Model’, as it is now known, shows that an economy will ‘naturally’ reach a maximum growth rate – a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ driven by cycles of production, consumption and decay. In von Neumann’s model, when the equilibrium is reached, all goods are produced as cheaply and as abundantly as possible. Older models had tended to assume that an equilibrium existed; von Neumann proved that one arose as a direct consequence of his axioms, including the assumption that an infinite supply of labour was available, for instance, and ‘all income in excess of necessities of life will be reinvested’."

"Theory of Games was not the complete guide to strategic behaviour that von Neumann and Morgenstern hoped. The two-person zero-sum game, perhaps the most elegant and immediately applicable part of the book, was rooted in von Neumann’s minimax theorem, first developed nearly twenty years earlier. Non-zero-sum games with an arbitrary number of players were a work in progress."

"He had come up with a mathematical framework allowing the analysis of any type of game – whether zero-sum or not – with any number of participants, and showed that there are certain outcomes for all games in which no player can do any better by unilaterally changing their strategy. These kinds of solutions to a game are now called Nash equilibria."




"By 1946, von Neumann was predicting that devastating nuclear war was imminent. ‘I don’t think this is less than two years and I do think it is less than ten,’ he wrote to Klári on 4 October that year.54 His answer was preventive war – a surprise attack that would wipe out the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal (and a good number of its people too) before the country was able to retaliate. ‘If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?’ he reportedly said in 1950. ‘If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?’"

"‘There was perhaps an inclination to take a too exclusively rational point of view about the cases of historical events,’ Ulam noted in his obituary of von Neumann. ‘This tendency was possibly due to an over-formalized game theory approach.’"

"The four-week hearing had begun on 12 April 1954. Oppenheimer’s security clearance was stripped on 29 June. In 2009, historians with access to the KGB archives found that Soviet intelligence had made many attempts to recruit Oppenheimer – but failed.70 They concluded he was not a spy."

"At RAND, game theory was being applied to the most pressing military problem of the time – how to avoid or survive a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. Though there is scant evidence von Neumann viewed international conflicts in game theoretic terms – others did."





"Cuban Missile Crisis"

"Engineer and mathematician Adrian Bowyer first conceived the idea he calls ‘Darwinian Marxism’ in 2004 – that eventually everyone’s home will be a factory, producing anything they want (as long as it can be made out of plastic, anyway)."

"Busy with so many other things, he would whizz in, lecture for an hour or two on the links between information and entropy or circuits for logical reasoning, then whizz off again – leaving the bewildered attendees to discuss the implications of whatever he had said for the rest of the afternoon."

"He quickly designed Life organisms capable of executing the basic logical operations and storing data.29 Conway did not bother to finish the job – he knew a Turing machine could be built from the components he had assembled. He had done enough to prove that his automaton could carry out any and all computations, and that amazing complexity could arise in a system far simpler than that of von Neumann."

"Conway was convinced that Life could support life itself. ‘It is no doubt true that on a large enough scale Life would generate living configurations,’ he asserted. ‘Genuinely living. Evolving, reproducing, squabbling over territory. Writing Ph.D theses.’31 He did, however, concede that this act of creation might need the game to be played on a board of unimaginable proportions – perhaps bigger than those of the known universe."

"‘Living things may be soft and squishy. But the basis of life is clearly digital,’ Fredkin claimed. ‘Put it another way – nothing is done by nature that can’t be done by a computer. If a computer can’t do it, nature can’t.’"

"The 1,280-page tome starts with characteristic modesty. ‘Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world,’ he declares. ‘My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation.’ And that transformation, he explained, would be achieved by finding the single ‘ultimate rule’ underlying all other physical laws – the automaton to rule them all, God’s four-line computer program. Wolfram had not found that rule."

"In 2010, the American biotechnologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter and his collaborators made a synthetic near-identical copy of a genome from the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides and transplanted it into a cell that had its own genome removed.64 The cell ‘booted up’ with the new instructions and began replicating like a natural bacterium. Venter hailed ‘the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer’ and though plenty of scientists disagreed that his team’s creation was truly a ‘new life form’, the organism was quickly dubbed ‘Synthia’.65"

"They expected their factories to evolve, just like a biological replicator. Left to their own devices in space, would these machines become conscious, and if so, would they necessarily be happy to serve our ends rather than their own? The machines could be taught ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but as with people, there was no guarantee of good behaviour. This unsettling conclusion led them to ask if humans would always be able switch off the autonomous factories should they pose a threat – the so-called ‘unpluggability problem’. They thought not. ‘At some point the depth of analysis and sophistication of action available to a robot system may exceed the abilities of human minds to defeat it,’ they say. How to prevent such machines from becoming ‘unpluggable’ should be an ‘urgent subject for further research’."

"Yet what Laing’s team felt most keenly was the boundless potential of von Neumann’s automata. ‘How will humankind deal with what has been termed, with some justification, “the last machine we need ever build”?’ they asked. Unleashing replicating machines, they said, may have ‘implications on a cosmological scale’."

"By the 1980s, von Neumann’s name was synonymous with the idea of self-replicating machines."

"‘When biochemists need complex molecular machines, they still have to borrow them from cells,’ Drexler says in his influential book Engines of Creation. ‘Nevertheless, advanced molecular machines will eventually let them build nanocircuits and nanomachines as easily and directly as engineers now build microcircuits or washing machines.’80 The first nanomachines, Drexler predicts, would be built from proteins, which already perform mechanical tasks in cells. Happily, machines built from these biomolecules would not even need to be assembled."

"And, to his later regret,81 he warned of ‘gray goo’ – an apocalyptic scenario that follows the accidental release of dangerous replicators from a lab; ‘they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days’.82"

"Schelling had produced two powerful conclusions with a fairly elementary model. First, cities can become segregated along lines of race even if no one minds living in a mixed community. Second, only an active desire for diversity leads to diverse neighbourhoods. Indifference results in segregation."

"Perhaps because of its near endless mindboggling implications, von Neumann regarded his automata work as the crowning achievement of his later years."

"Some futurologists are now speculating that a superhuman artificial intelligence could transform human society beyond all recognition. That possibility has become known as the technological ‘singularity’ – and that term was first used by someone who had foreseen the possibility decades earlier: John von Neumann.99"

"Strauss recalled ‘the extraordinary picture, of sitting beside the bed of this man … who had been an immigrant, and there surrounding him, were the Secretary of Defense, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Secretaries of Air, Army, Navy, and the Chiefs of Staff’.100 He left hospital briefly in a wheelchair to accept the Medal of Freedom from President Eisenhower. ‘I wish I could be around long enough to deserve this honour,’ he told the president. ‘You will be with us for a long time,’ Eisenhower reassured him, ‘we need you.’101"

"once asked him,’ says Marina, ‘when he knew he was dying, and was very upset, that “you contemplate with equanimity eliminating millions of people, yet you cannot deal with your own death.” And he said, “That’s entirely different.”’105"

"Terrified by the prospect of his own imminent death, von Neumann asked to see the hospital’s Catholic priest and returned to the faith he had ignored ever since his family had converted to it decades earlier in Budapest. ‘There probably is a God,’ he had once told his mother. ‘Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn’t.’"

"Marina says her father was thinking of Pascal’s wager and had always believed that in the face of even a small possibility of suffering eternal damnation the only logical course is to be a believer before the end: ‘My father told me, in so many words, once, that Catholicism was a very rough religion to live in but it was the only one to die in.’"

"The cancer metastasized, reaching von Neumann’s brain. He hallucinated in his sleep, babbling in Hungarian. Once or twice, he summoned the soldier guarding him to pass on some urgent piece of advice to the military. The mental faculties of the sharpest mind on the planet ebbed slowly away. Towards the end, says Marina, ‘he asked me to test him on really simple arithmetic problems, like seven plus four, and I did this for a few minutes, and then I couldn’t take it anymore; I left the room in tears.’107"

"‘For Von Neumann the road to success was a many-laned highway with little traffic and no speed limit.’"