John von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, and polymath. He made decisive contributions to virtually every area of mathematics outside of topology and number theory, including, but not limited to, Set Theory, Ergodic Theory, Operator Theory, Measure Theory, Geometry, Lattice Theory, the Mathematical Formulation of Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Logic, Game Theory, Mathematical Economics, Linear Programming, Mathematical Statistics, Fluid Dynamics, Cellular Automata and Digital Computing.
It goes without saying that John von Neumann was one of the foremost mathematicians of his era; he's said to be the last representative of the "great mathematicians" like Euler, Gauss, Poincare and Hilbert. He has over 150 published papers to his name, with over 120 of those being in the subject of mathematics, despite dying at the fairly early age of 53. His general cognitive and mathematical ability was the stuff of legends. His mentor Gabor Szego, a renowned mathematician in his own right, was so astounded with von Neumann's ability at their first meeting while John was only 15 years of age, that he was brought to tears. Testimonies abound of other famous scientists and mathematicians reporting their total inability to keep up with him, and of claiming that he was the most intelligent person they had ever met. He had an eidetic memory and could memorize pages of telephone directories at will. If Strong Logic means anything, we can surely conclude that John von Neumann possessed it. This is because his intelligence is so logically, externally focused.
An examination of his particular style of mathematics proves even more revealing about his particular values and information metabolism:
Stan Ulam, who knew von Neumann well, described his mastery of mathematics this way:
"Most mathematicians know one method. For example, Norbert Wiener had mastered Fourier transforms. Some mathematicians have mastered two methods and might really impress someone who knows only one of them. John von Neumann had mastered three methods."
He went on to explain that the three methods were:
• A facility with the symbolic manipulation of linear operators;Edward Teller wrote that "Nobody knows all science, not even von Neumann did. But as for mathematics, he contributed to every part of it except number theory and topology. That is, I think, something unique."
• An intuitive feeling for the logical structure of any new mathematical theory;
• An intuitive feeling for the combinatorial superstructure of new theories.
This bird's eye snapshot suggests that von Neumann belongs to the Researcher club, because the methods by which he displays his prodigious talent are notably intuitive whilst being oriented to logical considerations. The chiefly structural considerations that occupied von Neumann more specifically indicate that he is L-valuing, which means he is likely an Alpha Researcher. Moreover, the sheer breadth and volume of his contributions and interests and his bold, initiative-taking personality are highly suggestive of an Energiser. The following quip von Neumann made to the less experienced scientist, Dr. Felix T. Smith, further corroborates his ostensibly Bold Energising and Cautious Integrating:
"Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them."
John von Neumann grew up in an affluent and assimilated Jewish family, and he was a child prodigy. At a mere 6 years of age, he could converse in Ancient Greek and divide 8-digit numbers in his head. In two more years, he had attained some mastery over the intellectual machinery of calculus, and had read through a 46-volume history book by Wilhelm Oncken. This passion for ancient history would follow von Neumann throughout his life, and his erudition was such that a Princeton professor of Byzantine history claimed that his own expertise was surpassed by that of von Neumann in the subject. A mind of such splendid diversity and wide-spread curiosity squarely fits I1, and the correspondingly easy command of factual knowledge, despite not making it a central focus of his life and endeavours, is characteristic of P8.
Despite von Neumann's prodigious mathematical talent, his father insisted that he pursue a more lucrative field. Von Neumann acceded to his father's demand and received a degree in Chemical Engineering. However, according to his friend and fellow scientist Eugene Wigner, von Neumann never had much passion for chemical engineering, and so he simultaneously completed a brilliant PhD thesis in Mathematics. The thesis, which involved an axiomatisation of Georg Cantor's Set Theory, garnered the attention of the extremely famous mathematician David Hilbert, who took on von Neumann as a Post Doc and cemented his career in mathematics. The value disagreement that von Neumann had with his father emphasises L, I and E (von Neumann: intellectual passions) versus P, T and F (his father: what is effective and impactful in the world and more likely to lead to a profitable career). The flexibility of intellect and logical faculties that von Neumann required to simultaneously complete an engineering degree in a subject that he was not passionate about and a world-class doctoral thesis in mathematics points to I1, L2, and P8. Throughout his illustrious career as a mathematician, he continued to juggle pure and applied topics in the field, going against currents in the reverse direction of his father that claimed that a mathematician of his calibre should focus on pure mathematics. Later in his life, he justified his split focus as follows:
"I think that it is a relatively good approximation to truth — which is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations — that mathematical ideas originate in empirics. But, once they are conceived, the subject begins to live a peculiar life of its own and is … governed by almost entirely aesthetical motivations. In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much "abstract" inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration. Whenever this stage is reached the only remedy seems to me to be the rejuvenating return to the source: the reinjection of more or less directly empirical ideas.
A large part of mathematics which becomes useful developed with absolutely no desire to be useful, and in a situation where nobody could possibly know in what area it would become useful; and there were no general indications that it ever would be so. By and large it is uniformly true in mathematics that there is a time lapse between a mathematical discovery and the moment when it is useful; and that this lapse of time can be anything from 30 to 100 years, in some cases even more; and that the whole system seems to function without any direction, without any reference to usefulness, and without any desire to do things which are useful."All of this points to I1, L2, T7, and P8. It's emblematic of
- the energy and curiosity to follow through on his entire diverse array of interests
- flexible structural and aesthetic logic
- strong awareness of temporal considerations while minimising their influence on his life
- skepticism that anyone knows what is going to happen down the line
- a willingness to devote himself to matters that are not yet known to be useful
- exemplary skill and maturity when it comes to pragmatic and empirical matters.
Von Neumann's time at Princeton is also illustrative. He was highly socially active, owning one of the largest private residences in the Princeton academic community.
"Von Neumann liked to eat and drink; his wife, Klara, said that he could count everything except calories. He enjoyed Yiddish and "off-color" humor (especially limericks). He was a non-smoker. At Princeton he received complaints for regularly playing extremely loud German march music on his gramophone, which distracted those in neighboring offices, including Albert Einstein, from their work... Despite being a notoriously bad driver, he nonetheless enjoyed driving—frequently while reading a book—occasioning numerous arrests, as well as accidents. When Cuthbert Hurd hired him as a consultant to IBM, Hurd often quietly paid the fines for his traffic tickets. Von Neumann's closest friend in the United States was mathematician Stanislaw Ulam. A later friend of Ulam's, Gian-Carlo Rota, wrote: "They would spend hours on end gossiping and giggling, swapping Jewish jokes, and drifting in and out of mathematical talk." When von Neumann was dying in hospital, every time Ulam would visit he would come prepared with a new collection of jokes to cheer up his friend."This is indicative of R4, S5, and E6. He was inattentive when it came to maintaining appropriate relations with others, engaging in antics that rubbed some folks the wrong way. He was a bon vivant who appreciated the sensory aspects of life while lacking the ability to assess himself responsibly in the sensory realm. Finally, he appreciated unburdened and loose emotional environments where jokes and moods could be freely shared, and had some ability to create such environments, but intellectual business was always the predominate concern over the emotional atmosphere.
He was regarded as a mediocre teacher of others on account of the fact that he was prone to write quickly and erase the blackboard before his students had time to copy it. This is likely due to how naturally quick of a thinker that he was, and a corresponding lack of desire to slow down so that others could appropriately relate to his trains of thought. This fits I1 and R4. Nonetheless, von Neumann was generally well-liked and thought of as a diplomatic and modest figure given the level of genius he was capable of.
"A deep sense of humour and an unusual ability for telling stories and jokes endeared Johnny even to casual acquaintances. He could be blunt when necessary, but was never pompous. A mind of von Neumann's inexorable logic had to understand and accept much that most of us do not want to accept and do not even wish to understand. This fact coloured many of von Neumann's moral judgments. … Only scientific intellectual dishonesty and misappropriation of scientific results could rouse his indignation and ire — but these did — and did almost equally whether he himself, or someone else, was wronged."
This demonstrates some of von Neumann's F3; he wasn't prone to be a forceful personality, but could apply force boldly when it was called for, such as in cases that infringed upon his idealistic intellectual values. His ability to be blunt when necessary could correspond to F3 and P8. We also see Clarity-Seeking and World-Accepting values characteristic of the Alpha Quadra. He lacked pretence in spite of his awe-inspiring abilities, and was considerably idealistic. He generally made an attempt to be inclusive to others and to be unbiased by personal interests. As per his Strong Logic and Strong Intuition, he was frequently in the position of understanding the impersonal consequences of what was to come much more readily than others.
Von Neumann's Alpha values can also be observed in his relationships. His relationship to his first wife, Mariette Koevesi, ended when she fell in love with another physicist. Their separation was largely amicable, indicating that von Neumann was not a jealous or possessive partner. In short order, he renewed a relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Klara Dan, who was also married to someone else at the time. Klara's previous marriage ended, and her marriage with von Neumann began soon after. It is very possible that von Neumann was immersed in a sub-culture of mostly Alpha values in which relationships were generally amicable, not very possessive, and not overly serious.
Von Neumann was heavily involved in the development of nuclear weaponry both during and after World War II.
"After the war, Robert Oppenheimer remarked that the physicists involved in the Manhattan project had "known sin". Von Neumann's response was that "sometimes someone confesses a sin in order to take credit for it."This stance towards nuclear projects befits the unremitting curiosity of I1 and the cavalier attitude towards ethical appropriateness that sometimes accompanies R4. To von Neumann's credit, he did have a considerable sense of responsibility over what was to be done with the bombs, applying his own discipline of Game Theory to develop strategies that would keep the United States in power and ensure minimal harm.
Von Neumann continued unperturbed in his work and became, along with Edward Teller, one of those who sustained the hydrogen bomb project. He collaborated with Klaus Fuchs on further development of the bomb, and in 1946 the two filed a secret patent on "Improvement in Methods and Means for Utilizing Nuclear Energy", which outlined a scheme for using a fission bomb to compress fusion fuel to initiate nuclear fusion."
"Von Neumann is credited with developing the equilibrium strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD). He also "moved heaven and earth" to bring MAD about. His goal was to quickly develop ICBMs and the compact hydrogen bombs that they could deliver to the USSR, and he knew the Soviets were doing similar work because the CIA interviewed German rocket scientists who were allowed to return to Germany, and von Neumann had planted a dozen technical people in the CIA. The Russians considered that bombers would soon be vulnerable, and they shared von Neumann's view that an H-bomb in an ICBM was the ne plus ultra of weapons; they believed that whoever had superiority in these weapons would take over the world, without necessarily using them. He was afraid of a "missile gap" and took several more steps to achieve his goal of keeping up with the Soviets:
• He modified the ENIAC by making it programmable and then wrote programs for it to do the H-bomb calculations verifying that the Teller-Ulam design was feasible and to develop it further.
• Through the Atomic Energy Commission, he promoted the development of a compact H-bomb that would fit in an ICBM.
• He personally interceded to speed up the production of lithium-6 and tritium needed for the compact bombs.
• He caused several separate missile projects to be started, because he felt that competition combined with collaboration got the best results."His MAD strategy was very consistent with Alpha values and I1 in particular: make the potential for destruction so high that none would occur because no one would dare initiate it, and at the very least, the United States would not have to apply much force to deter attackers.
"Von Neumann's assessment that the Soviets had a lead in missile technology, considered pessimistic at the time, was soon proven correct in the Sputnik crisis. Von Neumann entered government service primarily because he felt that, if freedom and civilization were to survive, it would have to be because the United States would triumph over totalitarianism from Nazism, Fascism and Soviet Communism. During a Senate committee hearing he described his political ideology as "violently anti-communist, and much more militaristic than the norm". He was quoted in 1950 remarking, "If you say why not bomb [the Soviets] tomorrow, I say, why not today? If you say today at five o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?""Yet again, we see evidence of von Neumann's I1, T7 and P8, given the accuracy of predictions against the crowd regarding the development of Soviet technological capabilities. We also see a bold, forceful defense of humanistic values in a situation where other world powers desire to curtail them, which is a sufficient emergency to cause the F3 of von Neumann to emerge. However, his unhesitatingly warhawkish stance could certainly be regarded as lacking ethical sensitivity in its personal consequences for others as well as being overly paranoid about the personal attitudes of the Soviets, reflecting common charges levied against R4.
It is not hard to find a variety of short quotes by and about von Neumann that demonstrate the intellectual rigor of L2 in his mathematical work and way of thinking. Here are some examples:
"If one has really technically penetrated a subject, things that previously seemed in complete contrast, might be purely mathematical transformations of each other."
"Von Neumann's rigorous mathematical analysis of the structure of self-replication (of the semiotic relationship between constructor, description and that which is constructed), preceded the discovery of the structure of DNA. Von Neumann created the field of cellular automata without the aid of computers, constructing the first self-replicating automata with pencil and graph paper. The detailed proposal for a physical non-biological self-replicating system was first put forward in lectures Von Neumann delivered in 1948 and 1949, when he first only proposed a kinematic self-reproducing automaton. While qualitatively sound, von Neumann was evidently dissatisfied with this model of a self-replicator due to the difficulty of analyzing it with mathematical rigor. He went on to instead develop a more abstract model self-replicator based on his original concept of cellular automata."
"In 1955, von Neumann was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer. He was not able to accept the proximity of his own demise, and the shadow of impending death instilled great fear in him. He invited a Roman Catholic priest, Father Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to visit him for consultation. Von Neumann reportedly said, "So long as there is the possibility of eternal damnation for nonbelievers it is more logical to be a believer at the end," essentially saying that Pascal had a point, referring to Pascal's Wager. He had earlier confided to his mother, "There probably has to be a God. Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn't.""Overall, it seems clear that John von Neumann's best fit type is ILE.
To read more about the ILE, click here.
To find out more about our use of Socionics shorthand, click here.