Contemporary Mathematics
Volume 365, 2004
The Legend of John von Neumann
P.R. Halmos
ABSTRACT. This paper is reprinted as it appeared in the American Mathemat-
ical Monthly, 80, April 1973, 382-394. It is reprinted with the kind permission
of the author and the Monthly editors.
John von Neumann was a brilliant mathematician who made important con-
tributions to quantum physics, to logic, to meteorology, to war, to the theory and
applications of high-speed computing machines, and, via the mathematical theory
of games of strategy, to economics.
He was born December 28, 1903, in Budapest, Hungary. He was the
eldest of three sons in a well-to-do Jewish family. His family was a banker who
received a minor title of nobility from the Emperor Franz Josef; since the title was
hereditary, von Neumann's full Hungarian name was Margittai Neumann Janos.
(Hungarians put the family name first. Literally, but in reverse order, the name
means John Neumann of Margitta. The "of", indicated by the final "i", is where
the "von" comes from; the place name was dropped in the German translation. In
ordinary social intercourse such titles were never used, and by the end of the first
world war their use had gone out of fashion altogether. In Hungary von Neumann
Paul Halmos claims that he took up mathematics because he flunked his master's
orals in philosophy.
He received his Univ. of Illinois Ph.D. under
L. Doob. Then he was von Neumann's
assistant, followed by positions at Illinois, Syracuse, M. I. T.'s Radiation Lab, Chicago,
Michigan, Hawaii, and now is Distinguished Professor at Indiana Univ. He spent leaves at
the Univ. of Uruguay, Montevideo, Univ. of Miami, Univ. of California, Berkeley, Tulane,
and Univ. of Washington. He held a Guggenheim Fellowship and was awarded the MAA
Chauvenet Prize.
Professor Halmos' research is mainly measure theory, probability, ergodic theory,
topological groups, Boolean algebra, algebraic logic, and operator theory in Hilbert space.
He has served on the Council of the AMS for many years and was Editor of the Proceedings
of the AMS and Mathematical Reviews. His eight books, all widely used, include
Dimensional Vector
(Van Nostrand 1958),
Measure Theory
(Van Nostrand, 1950),
Naive Set Theory
(Van Nostrand, 1960), and
Hilbert Space Problem Book
(Van Nostrand,
The present paper is the original uncut version of a brief article commissioned by the
Encyclopedia Britannica.
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