John von Neumann, original name János Neumann, (born December 28, 1903, Budapest, Hungary—died February 8, 1957, Washington, D.C., U.S.), Hungarian-born American mathematician. As an adult, he appended von to his surname; the hereditary title had been granted his father in 1913. Von Neumann grew from child prodigy to one of the world’s foremost mathematicians by his mid-twenties. Important work in set theory inaugurated a career that touched nearly every major branch of mathematics. Von Neumann’s gift for applied mathematics took his work in directions that influenced quantum theory, automata theory, economics, and defense planning. Von Neumann pioneered game theory and, along with Alan Turing and Claude Shannon, was one of the conceptual inventors of the stored-program digital computer.
Early Life And Education
Von Neumann grew up in an affluent, highly assimilated Jewish family. His father, Miksa Neumann (Max Neumann), was a banker, and his mother, born Margit Kann (Margaret Kann), came from a family that had prospered selling farm equipment. Von Neumann showed signs of genius in early childhood: he could joke in Classical Greek and, for a family stunt, he could quickly memorize a page from a telephone book and recite its numbers and addresses. Von Neumann learned languages and math from tutors and attended Budapest’s most prestigious secondary school, the Lutheran Gymnasium. The Neumann family fled Béla Kun’s short-lived communist regime in 1919 for a brief and relatively comfortable exile split between Vienna and the Adriatic resort of Abbazia (now Opatija, Croatia). Upon completion of von Neumann’s secondary schooling in 1921, his father discouraged him from pursuing a career in mathematics, fearing that there was not enough money in the field. As a compromise, von Neumann simultaneously studied chemistry and mathematics. He earned a degree in chemical engineering (1925) from the Swiss Federal Institute in Zürich and a doctorate in mathematics (1926) from the University of Budapest.
European Career, 1921–30
Von Neumann commenced his intellectual career at a time when the influence of David Hilbert and his program of establishing axiomatic foundations for mathematics was at a peak. A paper von Neumann wrote while still at the Lutheran Gymnasium (“The Introduction of Transfinite Ordinals,” published 1923) supplied the now-conventional definition of an ordinal number as the set of all smaller ordinal numbers. This neatly avoids some of the complications raised by Georg Cantor’s transfinite numbers. Von Neumann’s “An Axiomatization of Set Theory” (1925) commanded the attention of Hilbert himself. From 1926 to 1927 von Neumann did postdoctoral work under Hilbert at the University of Göttingen. The goal of axiomatizing mathematics was defeated by Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, a barrier that was understood immediately by Hilbert and von Neumann. (See also mathematics, foundations of: Gödel.)
Von Neumann took positions as a Privatdozent...