Friday, September 01, 2017

Lax on vN: "He understood in an instant"

Mathematician Peter Lax (awarded National Medal of Science, Wolf and Abel prizes), interviewed about his work on the Manhattan Project. His comments on von Neumann and Feynman:
Lax: ... Von Neumann was very deeply involved in Los Alamos. He realized that computers would be needed to carry out the calculations needed. So that was, I think, his initial impulse in developing computers. Of course, he realized that computing would be important for every highly technical project, not just atomic energy. He was the most remarkable man. I’m always utterly surprised that his name is not common, household.

It is a name that should be known to every American—in fact, every person in the world, just as the name of Einstein is. I am always utterly surprised how come he’s almost totally unknown. ... All people who had met him and interacted with him realized that his brain was more powerful than anyone’s they have ever encountered. I remember Hans Bethe even said, only half in jest, that von Neumann’s brain was a new development of the human brain. Only a slight exaggeration.

... People today have a hard time to imagine how brilliant von Neumann was. If you talked to him, after three words, he took over. He understood in an instant what the problem was and had ideas. Everybody wanted to talk to him.


Kelly: I think another person that you mention is Richard Feynman?

Lax: Yes, yes, he was perhaps the most brilliant of the people there. He was also somewhat eccentric. He played the bongo drums. But everybody admired his brilliance. [ vN was a consultant and only visited Los Alamos occasionally. ]
Full transcript. See also Another species, an evolution beyond man.

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