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John von Neumann (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

This month the U.S. Postal Service debuts a new commemorative stamp set celebrating four American scientists. Today I share the story behind the third stamp of the series, which features John von Neumann.

John von Neumann showed great mathematical skill at an early age: By six he divided eight-digit numbers in his head, by eight he did calculus and also demonstrated a photographic memory by reading a page of the phone book and than reciting it with his eyes closed - later in life he used that ability to memorize the world's largest collection of off-color limericks.

Although born and raised in Budapest, his great skill attracted the attention of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1933 they made him the youngest member of their faculty. His ferocious intelligence so awed everyone that they joked that von Neumann was indeed a demigod, but that he had made a detailed study of human beings and could imitate them perfectly.

Like many scientists of his age, he got involved in the Manhattan Project, which made the first atomic bomb. He solved a key problem with the early bomb designs. Nuclear weapons depend on conventional explosives to squeeze the fissionable material together so it reaches the critical mass needed for an atomic explosion. Von Neumann figured out how exactly to place these charges so they would initiate the nuclear reaction.

He couldn't, of course, actually detonate a bomb, instead he had to calculate what would happen. To do this he used a series of IBM calculating machines. Soldiers operating them formed a very slow human computer: As each finished his work, he passed the result on to the next person to use in their calculation. This worked turned von Neumann on to the idea of using computers for scientific research.

He next worked on the first real computer, ENIAC. He realized a limitation to its design: ENIAC had to be, essentially, rebuilt for every different type of computation. Workers actually had to unplug cables and reassign them to different jacks. This task often took up to 2 days. So, in 1945 he applied his powerful analytical abilities to solving this problem.

In what is perhaps the most famous paper in the history of computer science he spelled out his vision of a computer. He boldly drew comparisons between electronic circuits and the brain's neurons, emphasizing that just as the brain relies on memory, so the computer would depend on its programs. Computers, he though, should not be specialized machines, but highly flexible, general-purpose devices, where a program, or what we now call software, controls the computer's actions.

So, while its fitting that the U.S. Postal Service has dedicated a stamp to John von Neumann, his real memorial lies in the billions of computers sitting on desktops each doing its own thing because each runs it own special type of software.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises