The von Neumann paradox

I, like Steve Hsu, I too would love to read a definitive biography of John von Neumann (or, as we’d say in the U.S., “John Neumann”). I’ve read little things about him in various places such as Stanislaw Ulam’s classic autobiography, and two things I’ve repeatedly noticed are:

1. Neumann comes off as a obnoxious, self-satisfied jerk. He just seems like the kind of guy I wouldn’t like in real life.

2. All these great men seem to really have loved the guy.

It’s hard for me to reconcile two impressions above. Of course, lots of people have a good side and a bad side, but what’s striking here is that my impressions of Neumann’s bad side come from the very stories that his friends use to demonstrate how lovable he was! So, yes, I’d like to see the biography–but only if it could resolve this paradox.

Also, I don’t know how relevant this is, but Neumann shares one thing with the more-lovable Ulam and the less-lovable Mandelbrot: all had Jewish backgrounds but didn’t seem to like to talk about it.

P.S. Just to calibrate, here are my impressions of some other famous twentieth-century physicists. In all cases this is based on my shallow reading, not from any firsthand or even secondhand contact:

Feynman: Another guy who seemed pretty unlikable. Phil and I use the term “Feynman story” for any anecdote that someone tells that is structured so that the teller comes off as a genius and everyone else in the story comes off as an idiot. Again, lots of people, from Ulam to Freeman Dyson on down, seemed to think Feynman was a great guy. But I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of other people didn’t think he was so great. So Feynman seems like a standard case of a guy who was nice to some people and a jerk to others.

Einstein: Everyone seems to describe him as pretty remote, perhaps outside the whole “nice guy / jerk” spectrum entirely.

Gell-Mann (or, as we’d say in the U.S., “Gelman”): Nobody seemed to like him so much. He doesn’t actually come off as a bad guy in any way, just someone who, for whatever reason, isn’t so lovable.

Fermi, Bohr, Bethe: In contrast, everyone seemed to love these guys.

Hawking: What can you say about a guy with this kind of disability?

Oppenheimer: A tragic figure etc etc. I don’t think anyone called him likable.

Teller: Even less likable, apparently.

That’s about it. (Sorry, I’m not very well-read when it comes to physics gossip. I don’t know, for example, if any Nobel-Prize-winning physicists have tried to run down any of their colleagues in a parking lot.)

Paul Erdos is another one: He always seems to be described as charmingly eccentric, but from all the descriptions I’ve read, he sounds just horrible! Perhaps the key is to come into these interactions with appropriate expectations, then everything will be OK.

Maybe Michael Frayn would have some insight into this . . . not that I have any way of reaching him!

23 thoughts on “The von Neumann paradox

  1. William Poundstone's Prisoner's Dilemma is actually quite good, as is Steven Heim's joint biography of von Neumann and Wiener, though the latter is from 1980 and I imagine more has been done with the archives since then. MacRae's John von Neumann, from 1992, is supposed to be quite thorough, but I haven't read it.

  2. I can second the Poundstone recommendation. It's focus is game theory, but there is still quite a lot about him personally.

    It may be that some geniuses in academia are obnoxious as a signaling method. You, on the other hand, seem very humble from your blog. But maybe you're just really good at signaling that.

  3. There is a selection problem. Wittgenstein illustrates the same paradox. He could be very rude and self-centred and inconsiderate and he messed up several people's lives. Yet he attracted much affection and even adoration and acquired some life-long disciples (some of whose lives he messed up, etc.).

    But it is, mostly, the disciples who wrote at length about him. Those who disliked him said so briefly or kept politely quiet. Even sustained hate rarely leads to full-length biographies.

    Russell clearly had more charm, but again and again he was a selfish, devious, twisted so-and-so.

    Feynman is an interesting case. He sounds a real pain as a colleague, but perhaps most of the colleagues learned to take an average — he could be obnoxious, but people like that can be refreshing and inspiring, even indirectly.

    Geniuses just break any standard rules and you can't mould that.

  4. Tlm:

    I read that Oppenheimer biography and it was indeed excellent. From that book, my impression is that Oppenheimer was an interesting and decent person but not particularly likable.

    Darf, Numeric:

    I'm much nicer on the blog than in real life.

  5. My brief experience of Erdos (I encountered him a few times in the math lounge at the University of Calgary, and played a game or two of Go with him) was that he seemed pleasant enough. Not the sort who comes across as obnoxious within the first 10 seconds of meeting them or anything like that, and not even particularly eccentric, on brief acquaintance. Of course, longer exposure might have produced a different impression.

  6. The book Einstein's mistakes has some insights about the personality of some physicist ( (highly recommendable in general)). From what I remember:

    Lorentz : Grate guy

    Einstein: Not so nice when you look at his personal life.

    Regarding Oppenheimer, recall that he tried to poisoned a professor when he was in Cambridge.

  7. CS Peirce might have been one of the worse.

    He put on an elaborate fake wedding (involving numerous actors) inorder to seduce a young woman – remember it was in the mid 1800s.

    Nick, likley would know better than I, but his throwing Lady Victoria Welby's work in Russel's face (calling it obviously superior to Russels) might have been an attempt to make up for it.

    Peirce did an extensive study on successful intellectuals trying to discern what made them successful.

    It was driven by him trying to figure why he had NOT been successful.

    Trust this is not Andrew's drive in these posts on personalities ;-)


  8. I've run into lots of scientists who are really mean in a (perhaps unintentionally) cruel way to people they think are idiots, but quite pleasant to those they think are smart. And I'm not talking about brown-nosing people above them or abusing those below them, which none of the people I'm thinking about would ever do based on status.

    The other thing I've found is that many of these rather cruel academics are quite pleasant in social settings, even to people they think are idiots scientifically.

    Everyone loved Erdös at Michigan State, where he came to hang out with my undergrad advisor, Ed Palmer, who was a random graph theorist. Erdös would spend all night (literally) hanging out with undergrads and was very generous sharing ideas and open problems. I also still remember the mimeographed Erdös-number graph on Palmer's door.

  9. Bob:

    I know what you're talking about, and I'm a bit like that myself–see the 3rd-to-last and 2nd-to-last paragraphs here for discussion of the general phenomenon. But my impression of Neumann is that was an obnoxious, self-satisfied jerk, not merely a busy guy who didn't suffer fools lightly.

  10. I think assholes deserve a cost benefit analysis assessment, which gives von neumann a rather large space to be a jerk. The problem is, who's going to be the managing adult to prevent Semmelweis-type waste? From my solipstic reference, it seems like it always has to be me as the final default.

  11. I've read biographies by Aspray, Macrae, Poundstone, Ulam, and the article on him by Halmos that appeared in the American Mathematical Monthly. I did not get the impression that he was in any sense a "jerk." Halmos didn't just meet him, they worked together. I know people who met him, and I have never heard any of them say anything negative. Quite the contrary.

    The person that come closet to being a "jerk" is Robert Oppenheimer. We have the choking incident, and the poisoning incident. One has to wonder if this guy was even sane. He cheated on his wife, he made up lies about his friend Haakon Chevalier. See Chevalier's book Oppenheimer:Story of a Friendship. He lied to the government about his affiliation with the Communist Party. He might have even been a spy for the Soviet Union as revealed in the Beria Memo. The latter is extremely controversial, and might not be true. His actual membership in the Communist party is established by the set of documents described here.

    Teller was difficult. I know at least three people who worked with him, and they describe him as erratic. But you could convince him he was wrong with a logical argument. Don't take the Ulam book as anything more than one man's opinion. Teller really does get most of the credit for the two-stage device. This comes from people who don't like him.

  12. Some bios:

    On Feynman and Gell-Mann there is the delightful "Feynman's Rainbow" by Leonard Mlodinow.

    (there's lots of books on Feynman, of course, but this one is less known than I think it ought to be)

    On Von Neumann and Norbert Weiner there's a joint bio by Steve Heims, subtitled "From mathematics to the technologies of life and death" (mentioned above).

    My overall impression is that Gell-Mann was the sort of guy who would correct your pronunciation in your native language.

  13. Optimal human information processing is niether optimal nor fair re: evaluate people based on some first impression.

    No one would have time to fairly evaluate even a large fraction of the people they must deal with.

    I "think" I have been good at detecting when others have formed negative first impressions of me and have been long fascinated with how hard they are to overcome.

    It seldom happens, except occassionaly such as perhaps once when I was walking to a subway subway stop after a luke warm interview …

    My funny example is when I arrived at a party and while leaning against a wall talking to a friend while about half way through my first beer of the week – I took up his challenge to slowly slide to the floor without removing my back from the wall. I was almost all the way down when someone came over pulled me back up, grabbed my beer and poured it down the drain shaking his head. They would not "hear" any explanation for me sliding down the wall other than being drunk and on other occassions would not have anything to do with me.

    The challenge as the old saying goes – first impression are really hard to over come.

    But without them we probably could not function.


  14. Feynman was really nice to Caltech undergrads during the time I was there. He came to dinner at my dorm (Dabney) and later invited us to his house — or, at least, we had a party there. Every Wednesday he answered questions for an hour. I wanted to take independent study with him. He listened to me for a few hours before refusing.

  15. Seth,

    I read your blog regularly. I didn't know you were a techer! I was a regular at physics x (Feynman's unofficial course) when I was a freshman.

    Are you going to be in Beijing in December? I'll be in Zhongguancun (Inst. for Theoretical Physics, CAS) from 12/11-18 and it would be great to meet.

    Steve Hsu

  16. >On Von Neumann and Norbert Weiner there's a joint bio by Steve Heims, subtitled "From mathematics to the technologies of life and death" (mentioned above).

    This is an excellent biography, filled with personal anecdotes and psychological contrasts as well of course the interwoven stories of two of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. Highly recommended. No math is required, as I recall from my long-ago read.

  17. It is an interesting question. I have not read the recent Dirac biography, but I am highly charmed by the glimpses of him you get in the Bohr biographies and also in Frisch's memoirs of the Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Manhattan Project ("What I Remember"), which are highly worthwhile. The Erdos biography "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers" is also worthwhile. It might be that some of us grant too much appeal/charm to these somewhat offbeat details in reminiscences, and that the people themselves would have been difficult to work with. Bohr was almost universally loved and admired for reasons that had as much to do with personality and the gift he had for cultivating collaboration as to do with his sheer intelligence – it takes a certain level of perceptiveness and writing to capture this. (I love the Hodges Turing biography too – surely there are not many other books of that ilk so good.)

  18. It seems odd to mention in this context, but I highly recommend the book Ball Four, by Jim Bouton. It's a daily diary of Bouton's baseball season in 1969, when he was trying to hang on in the major leagues as an aging (29) knuckleballer, having been a star pitcher five and six years earlier. It's a terrific book, but the reason I bring it up here is that it is full of "Feynman stories" in which Bouton seems smarter or more fair-minded or more observant than his peers. He also has a great sense of humor. If you just pay attention to the surface, Bouton seems like he must be a really great guy, smart and full of fun.

    But if you pay close attention, you notice over the course of the book that a very large fraction of Bouton's teammates (and manager, and clubhouse man, etc.) think Bouton is a jerk. Each individual story, it seems like Bouton is the reasonable guy and it's the other person who is the jerk, but you put them all together, and…well, if 90% of the people you deal with think you're a jerk, you probably are a jerk.

    I mentioned this to a friend who lived in Bouton's neighborhood when my friend was in her teens and Bouton was in his early forties. She said she didn't know Bouton well, but had seen him at a few PTA meetings and such, and, yeah, he was a bit of a jerk.

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