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!