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The maniac
Labatut B., Penguin Press, Westminster, London, 2023. 368 pp. Type: Book (9780593654477)
Date Reviewed: Jan 31 2024

At the confluence of physics, mathematics, and computing, in the middle of the 20th century, lived a community of unique and sometimes troubled geniuses whose work created today’s technological marvels and dangers. Einstein, of course, Hilbert, Pólya, Cantor, Gödel, Oppenheimer, Feynman, and Wigner, to name but a few. And at the center, a “terrifying” intellect intimidating even those mental giants: John von Neumann. Today’s computer science students learn about his stored-program architecture, but likely have no idea of the astonishing breadth and depth of his influence on nearly every aspect of modern technology.

Part imagined history and part real history, Labatut’s book follows von Neumann’s life through fictional yet well-researched interactions and conversations with his colleagues, competitors, friends, and family members. The author’s approach in this way gives the reader some insight into his subject’s almost supernatural brilliance and imposing personality. For example, the somewhat fanciful descriptions of the competition and collaboration between Feynman and von Neumann while working on the atomic bomb project evokes the kind of almost incomprehensible dialogs one might imagine between two such gifted minds.

Labatut, a noted Chilean writer of science history, weaves the development of quantum theory, mathematical consistency, and the beginnings of artificial intelligence (AI) into tales of von Neumann’s ideas and research as “told” by his contemporaries. In the process, readers learn about mathematicians driven nearly insane by their discoveries and creations, the doubts and arguments about the building and use of the atomic bomb, the rise of game theory, and perhaps the greatest of von Neumann’s visions: computing and AI.

The final section of the book, less contrived but most dramatic, details the evolving competition between humans and machines, first with chess and then with Go, and the ultimately stunning defeat of human experts by self-learning algorithms: AlphaGo and DeepMind. The origin of these creations, and the title of the book, applies equally to one of the earliest computers at Princeton (the MANIAC) and to the man who truly understood its potential.

The author’s unconventional approach, not quite fiction and not quite historical accuracy, has its critics who dislike the undocumented assumptions about how such discussions and events might have occurred, especially among von Neumann and their deservedly idolized scientific heroes. But readers will discover much of interest about the foundational thinker in science and technology whose work transformed our world.

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Reviewer:  Harry J. Foxwell Review #: CR147698
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John von Neumann and the origins of modern computing
Aspray W., MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990. Type: Book (9780262011211)
Mar 1 1992
John von Neumann
Macrae N., Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 1992. Type: Book (9780679413080)
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