... the cleverest man I ever knew, without exception.
Jacob Bronowski on John von Neumann in The Ascent of Man
The first answer to Fermi's question came almost immediately. Leo Szilard, one of Fermi's regular lunchtime companions at Los Alamos, joked: "They are among us and they call themselves Hungarians."
There was a whimsical story, often told within the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos, that Hungarian people are Martians.33 Millions of years ago, so the story went, the Martians left their own planet and traveled to Earth, landing in what is now Hungary. At that time the European tribes were barbarians, so the Martians had to pass themselves off as human — if the barbarians suspected aliens were in their midst, then blood (or rather the Martian equivalent) would be shed. Except for three traits, the Martians successfully hid their evolutionary differences. The first trait was wanderlust: this found its outlet in the Hungarian gypsy. The second trait was language: Hungarian is unrelated to any of the Indo-European languages spoken in the neighboring countries of Austria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. The third trait was intelligence: their brainpower was beyond that of mere humans.
unfortunately for the theory, many peoples have exhibited wanderlust at some point in their history; and the Hungarian language is hardly unique, related as it is to Finnish, Estonian and some languages spoken in Russia. But that third trait was in evidence at Los Alamos: Fermi's lunchtime companions regularly included not only Szilard himself, but also Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller and John von Neumann. All four had been born in Budapest within ten years of each other. Another Hungarian at Los Alamos, Theodore von Karman, was also a native of Budapest, but had been born slightly before the others. These "Martians" certainly constituted a formidable array of intellect. The physicist Szilard made contributions in several fields. Teller went on to be the prime mover behind the development of thermonuclear weapons. Wigner won the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in quantum theory. The engineer von Karman performed early work in rocketry and the theory of supersonic drag, and his research led to the design of the first aircraft to break the sound barrier.
Easily the most brilliant of the Martians, though, was von Neumann. John von Neumann, whom we shall meet again later in the book, was one of the outstanding mathematicians of the 20th century. He developed the discipline of game theory, made fundamental contributions to quantum theory, ergodic theory, set theory, statistics and numerical analysis, and gained fame when he helped develop the first flexible stored-program dig ital computer. Toward the end of his career he was a consultant to big business and the military, allotting time to various projects as if his brain were a time-share mainframe computer. His ability to calculate in his head the answers to mathematical problems was legendary — he routinely beat Fermi whenever the pair had a calculating contest — and his near-photographic memory just added to an aura of unearthly intelligence. He possessed other talents that chimed nicely with the "Hungarians are aliens" story. "Good-Time Johnny" absorbed large amounts of alcohol at Princeton parties with seemingly no detriment to his mental faculties. He was involved in road traffic accidents at alarming rate — one junction in Princeton was known as "von Neumann Corner" after all the accidents he caused there — yet he always walked away unscathed. (The natural conclusion is that alcohol affected his driving, but there is no evidence that this was the case; he seems just to have been a bad driver.)
But even the "cleverest man in the world" sometimes got it wrong. Although he played a pivotal role in the development of the digital computer, and has thus affected our lives in a way that few mathematicians have done, von Neumann apparently thought that computers would always be huge devices, useful only for building thermonuclear bombs and controlling the weather. He failed completely to foresee a day when computers would be embedded in everything from the toaster to the tape deck. Surely a real Martian would have known better.
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