THR Web Features   /   October 17, 2023

The Man for Whom Everything Was a Game

John von Neumann was a peculiar kind of maniac.

Mark Dunbar

( John von Neumann with the Williams Storage Tube, 1952; Engineering and Technology History Wiki,

Reviewed Here

Benjamin Labatut
New York, NY: Penguin/McClelland & Stewart, 2023.

In a scene from Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster, Oppenheimer, after the atomic bomb has been tested at Los Alamos, and “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” are loaded for shipment, Robert Oppenheimer tries explaining to a military bureaucrat the best height for dropping the bombs for maximum damage, to which the military bureaucrat replies, “We’ve got it from here.”

If the officer’s implication was that the atomic age was now in the hands of practical men, not scientists, he was wrong. Scientists were involved both before and after the testing of the bomb. More specifically, scientific geniuses were involved. And the one who counseled the military on the height at which to drop the bombs was John von Neumann, the subject of Chilean writer Benjamin Labatut’s new novel, The MANIAC. The title is apt, although von Neumann was a peculiar kind of maniac: not the kind who had lost his grip on reality, but the kind who was completely in its grip. (The novel takes its title from the early computer developed by von Neumann in the 1950s, the Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer.)

Labatut calls von Neumann “the smartest human being of the twentieth century,” and the biographical facts bear this out. A child prodigy, von Neumann went on to earn, simultaneously, a degree in chemical engineering (his father, a Hungarian noble, wanted him to study something practical) and a doctorate in mathematics. By twenty-two, he was already a professor. By the time he died in February 1957 at the age of fifty-three, he had revolutionized mathematics and many fields bordering the mathematical (computation, quantum mechanics, economic theory).

The chapters of The MANIAC are successively told through the points of view of people who were variously involved with von Neumann: his colleagues and professional rivals (Eugene Wigner and Richard Feynman, among others), his wife Klára (a mathematical genius in her own right), and his daughter Marina. The family chapters are the most revealing, giving us a clear picture of von Neumann stripped of his mythical pretensions. “It’s a miracle that a man so completely idiotic could be so smart,” Klára says of the twentieth-century’s smartest human being.

Von Neumann’s life ended the way many of those of his intellectual caliber end: in madness. Madness is a recurring theme in The MANIAC, which briefly touches on the fates of other possessed geniuses such as Kurt Gödel, who starved himself through paranoia, and Georg Cantor, the Russian mathematician who died in a sanatorium after having “achieved something that should have been impossible: he expanded infinity.” Yet von Neumann was not crazed the way others who stood on the “dread shore” of genius were; their variety of madness consumed their psyches, but his fed on the world. He wanted to mathematize everything, including human relationships. He wanted to replace religion with technology—or, more precisely, to transfer religious devotion to technology. He wanted to drop a hydrogen bomb on the Soviet Union. It was the rational move, he said. It was, he believed, the only rational move. Otherwise, the Soviets might build their own hydrogen bomb. Then they might drop it on us.

Von Neumann fetishized logic and rationality, but when others disagreed with his conclusions (such as preemptively dropping a hydrogen bomb or submitting all human interactions to a game-theory calculator), he could turn on logic and rationality. His problem was not that he was too rational but that he, like all of us, was gripped by other factors, other considerations, that he pretended were the result of rational calculations rather than irrational impulses. Particularly in the family chapters, we see von Neumann the man, not the “mathematical weapon,” as Albert Einstein derisively nicknamed him (although von Neumann loved the epithet), but a man with unacknowledged emotions, impulses, and obsessions. That man wanted to drop a hydrogen bomb on the Soviet Union not because it was logical but because it would have been satisfying to both his ego and his politics. Life for von Neumann was, in Klára’s words, a game—and one that he maniacally sought to win. Marital disputes for him were not negotiations but debates, with point-scoring, not resolution, the goal. On his deathbed, he converted to Catholicism not because he believed in grace but because he feared death. Like his anti-Communism, his fear of death might have been a rational emotion. But as with his desire for preemptive genocide, his desire for personal immortality fell far short of rational.

It is with age and all it entails (marriage, children, maturing friendships) that one usually finds that the logical side of things is just that: one side of things. One discovers that a higher wisdom is reached not by leaning completely on logic but in balancing logic and reasons with other considerations, including emotional commitments, loyalties, and at least a modicum of self-doubt. One learns that one can win the argument but lose the man. The MANIAC leaves us with the clear impression that von Neumann never learned this vital truth about life. “He understood nothing of uncertainty, awkwardness, or lack of self-worth,” says Klára, “because he was always so much better, so much smarter than anyone else.”

The MANIAC ends curiously, with one hundred pages on the world’s best GO players competing against a computer program—a program von Neumann’s computational work made possible. While these pages are by far the weakest of the book, they are not as pointless or tacked on as they at first seem. Their message is that if the nuclear inferno does not get us, the digital game might; that regardless of our preferences, technology might become our god—or might already have.