Friday, April 21, 2017

Von Neumann and Realpolitik

"Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." -- Thucydides, Melian Dialogue.


Von Neumann, Feynman, and Ulam.
Adventures of a Mathematician (Ulam): ... Once at Christmas time in 1937, we drove from Princeton to Duke University to a meeting of the American Mathematical Society. ...

As we passed the battlefields of the Civil War, Johnny recounted the smallest details of the battles. His knowledge of history was really encyclopedic, but what he liked and knew best was ancient history. He was a great admirer of the concise and wonderful way the Greek historians wrote. His knowledge of Greek enabled him to read Thucydides, Herodotus, and others in the original; his knowledge of Latin was even better.

The story of the Athenian expedition to the island of Melos, the atrocities and killings that followed, and the lengthy debates between the opposing parties fascinated him for reasons which I never quite understood. He seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the brutality of a civilized people like the ancient Greeks. For him, I think it threw a certain not-too-complimentary light on human nature in general. Perhaps he thought it illustrated the fact that once embarked on a certain course, it is fated that ambition and pride will prevent a people from swerving from a chosen course and inexorably it may lead to awful ends, as in the Greek tragedies. Needless to say this prophetically anticipated the vaster and more terrible madness of the Nazis. Johnny was very much aware of the worsening political situation. In a Pythian manner, he foresaw the coming catastrophe. ...

... I will never forget the scene a few days before he died. I was reading to him in Greek, from his worn copy of Thucydides, a story he liked especially about the Athenians' attack on Melos, and also the speech of Pericles. He remembered enough to correct an occasional mistake or mispronunciation on my part.

... there was nothing small about his interests ... He was unique in this respect. Unique, too, were his overall intelligence, breadth of interest, and absolute feeling for the difference between the momentary technical work and the great lines of the life of the mathematical tree itself and its role in human thought.

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