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John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More by Norman Macrae (130,000 words, 1 photograph)

John von Neumann was a Jewish refugee from Hungary — considered a “genius” like fellow Hungarians Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller — who played key roles developing the A-bomb at Los Alamos during World War II. As a mathematician at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (where Einstein was also a professor), von Neumann was a leader in the development of early computers. Later, he developed the new field of game theory in economics and became a top nuclear arms policy adviser to the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.


“I always thought [von Neumann’s] brain indicated that he belonged to a new species, an evolution beyond man. Macrae shows us in a lively way how this brain was nurtured and then left its great imprint on the world.” —
Hans A. Bethe, Cornell University

“The book makes for utterly captivating reading. Von Neumann was, of course, one of this century’s geniuses, and it is surprising that we have had to wait so long... for a fully fleshed and sympathetic biography of the man. But now, happily, we have one. Macrae nicely delineates the cultural, familial, and educational environment from which von Neumann sprang and sketches the mathematical and scientific environment in which he flourished. It’s no small task to render a genius like von Neumann in ordinary language, yet Macrae manages the trick, providing more than a glimpse of what von Neumann accomplished intellectually without expecting the reader to have a Ph.D. in mathematics. Beyond that, he captures von Neumann’s qualities of temperament, mind, and personality, including his effortless wit and humor. And [Macrae] frames and accounts for von Neumann’s politics in ways that even critics of them, among whom I include myself, will find provocative and illuminating.” —
Daniel J. Kevles, California Institute of Technology

“A lively portrait of the hugely consequential nonmathematician-physicist-et al., whose genius has left an enduring impress on our thought, technology, society, and culture. A double salute to Steve White, who started this grand book designed for us avid, nonmathematical readers, and to Norman Macrae, who brought it to a triumphant conclusion.” —
Robert K. Merton, Columbia University

“The first full-scale biography of this polymath, who was born Jewish in Hungary in 1903 and died Roman Catholic in the United States at the age of 53. And Mr. Macrae has some great stories to tell... Mr. Macrae’s biography has rescued a lot of good science gossip from probable extinction, and has introduced many of us to the life story of a man we ought to know better.” — Ed Regis,
The New York Times

“A nice and fascinating picture of a genius who was active in so many domains.” —
Zentralblatt MATH

“Biographer Macrae takes a ‘viewspaperman’ approach which stresses the context and personalities associated with von Neumann’s remarkable life, rather than attempting to give a detailed scholarly analysis of von Neumann’s papers. The resulting book is a highly entertaining account that is difficult to put down.” —
Journal of Mathematical Psychology

“A full and intimate biography of ‘the man who consciously and deliberately set mankind moving along the road that led us into the Age of Computers.’” — Freeman Dyson, Princeton, NJ

“It is good to have a biography of one of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century, even if it is a biography that focuses much more on the man than on the mathematics.” — Fernando Q. Gouvêa,
Mathematical Association of America

“Based on much research, his own and that of others (especially of Stephen White), Macrae has written a valuable biography of this remarkable genius of our century, without the opacity of technical (mathematical) dimensions that are part of the hero’s intellectual contributions to humanity. Interesting, informative, illuminating, and insightful.” —
Choice Review

“Macrae paints a highly readable, humanizing portrait of a man whose legacy still influences and shapes modern science and knowledge.” —
Resonance, Journal of Science Education

“In this affectionate, humanizing biography, former
Economist editor Macrae limns a prescient pragmatist who actively fought against fascism and who advocated a policy of nuclear deterrence because he foresaw that Stalin’s Soviet Union would rapidly acquire the bomb and develop rocketry... Macrae makes [von Neumann’s] contributions accessible to the lay reader, and also discusses von Neumann’s relationships with two long-suffering wives, his political differences with Einstein and the cancer that killed him.” — Publishers Weekly

“Macrae’s life of the great mathematician shows dramatically what proper care and feeding can do for an unusually capacious mind.” — John Wilkes,
Los Angeles Times