John von Neumann's departure to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies in 1933 was the starting point for the legend of "America's smartest man". But by that time, he was already a world-renowned mathematician and physicist, recognized as one of the most outstanding minds of the 20th century.
Von Neumann was born on December 28, 1903, in Budapest, capital of Hungary, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The family was wealthy and had status: the father was a banker and, in 1913, he was elevated to imperial nobility. The surname was just "Neumann", but when he anglicized his name, the son decided to add "von", to give an aristocratic tone.
Johnny, as he would come to be known to all, was a child prodigy, and there are countless anecdotes about his early talent. A biographer says that at 6 years old he talked to his father in ancient Greek (they would even tell jokes …) and made divisions with 8-digit numbers mentally. One day, seeing that his mother had taken a break from sewing and was looking at him absorbed, she asked, "Mommy, what are you calculating?"
At the age of 8, he knew differential and integral calculus, but he really liked history: he would have read all 46 volumes of Universal History in his father's private library. It is one of the best known cases of photographic memory: challenged, he retold the whole "Tale of two cities", by Charles Dickens, word for word for 15 minutes, until his colleague asked to stop.
He enrolled at the University of Budapest, but spent his time traveling: Berlin, to listen to Einstein's courses; Zurich, where he was enrolled in engineering; and Göttingen, to study with Hilbert. At 22, he completed a degree in chemical engineering in Zurich and a doctorate in mathematics in Budapest, in addition to two extension courses in chemistry and experimental physics.
Quantum mechanics was taking center stage in physics, and there were two rival mathematical theories: Schrödinger's wave equation and Heisenberg's linear operator formalism. In a series of works published between 1925 and 1929, von Neumann resolved the dispute by proving mathematically that the two theories are equivalent and lead to exactly the same results.
World famous at the age of 26, von Neumann was invited by mathematician Oswald Veblen to present his work at Princeton University in the United States. It was an opportunity for him to discover how much he and America had been made for each other: it was the land of optimism, entrepreneurship, money and the "good things in life". A new stage was beginning on his journey. I'll tell you that part of the story next week.
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