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.

Youth.

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

J.

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

Finite-

Dimensional Vector

Spaces

(Van Nostrand 1958),

Measure Theory

(Van Nostrand, 1950),

Naive Set Theory

(Van Nostrand, 1960), and

Hilbert Space Problem Book

(Van Nostrand,

1967).

The present paper is the original uncut version of a brief article commissioned by the

Encyclopedia Britannica.

Editor.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1090/conm/365/06696