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John van Neumann (3) vs. Albert Brooks; Paul Erdos advances

We had some good arguments on both sides yesterday.

For Erdos, from Diana Senechal:

From an environmental perspective, Erdos is the better choice; his surname is an adjectival form of the Hungarian erdő, “forest,” whereas “Carson” clearly means “son of a car.” Granted, the son of a car, being rebellious and all, might prove especially attentive to the quality of the air, but we have no evidence of this.

On the other side Stephen Oliver had an excellent practical point:

Johnny Carson, because if Erdos gave a talk it would be overrun by mathematicians trying to get a paper with him.

But I had to call it for Erdos after this innovative argument from Ethan Bolker, who said, “I have a good argument for Erdos but will save it for a later round. If he loses this one you’ll never know . . .” I think you can only use that ploy once ever—but he used it!

Our next bout features two people who changed their own names. In one corner, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of all time, but a bit of a snob who enjoyed hobnobbing with government officials and apparently added “von” to his name to make himself sound more upper-class. In the other corner, a very funny man who goes by “Brooks” because he didn’t feel like going through life with the name Albert Einstein.

From what I’ve read about von Neumann, I find him irritating and a bit of a braggart. But, if we want to go negative, we can get on Brooks’s case for not fulfilling his early comedic promise. So maybe we should be looking for positive things to say about these two guys.

Again, the full bracket is here, and here are the rules:

We’re trying to pick the ultimate seminar speaker. I’m not asking for the most popular speaker, or the most relevant, or the best speaker, or the deepest, or even the coolest, but rather some combination of the above.

I’ll decide each day’s winner not based on a popular vote but based on the strength and amusingness of the arguments given by advocates on both sides. So give it your best!


  1. J Storrs Hall says:

    Once upon a time, a woman goes into a clothing store and picks out a dress. She attempts to pay for it with a $50 bill.
    “Sorry, you can’t use that,” the clerk says.
    “Why not?”
    “It’s counterfeit.”
    “Oh my God!” she exclaims. “I’ve been raped!”

    The comic or the mathemetician? The author of this joke was John von Neumann (see Who Got Einstein’s Office. I have no idea who got Brooks’ office.)

    BTW, the “von” came from JvN’s father, who purchased it in 1913. It would have been illegal to use otherwise.

  2. Manuel says:

    I would be really excited to attend the seminar of the guy that changed his name to sound like the Dutch version of a great Hungarian mathematician. Mel Einstein’s would be a good seminar too.

    • jrc says:

      The rules state clearly that a draw goes to away GOATS, and since neither of these two are GOATS, it then goes to a publicity shootout. JvN has like 32,000 citations on Google Scholar. No one cares, so Brooks advances on the strength of The Simpsons alone (and leaves a large body of animation memes and a number of potential cracks about the mightiness of the pen for future rounds). #Hollywoo

      Surprising. Can’t say I’m happy about it. But don’t be mad at me, it’s not like I’m just making up the rules as I go. This is competitive academic seminar invitation 101, like that Suarez handball off the line and the red card and the penalty miss at the World Cup in South Africa. You have to play the rules if you want to win, and Brooks found a way to grind out the result.

  3. Ethan Bolker says:

    I don’t know Brooks but I’m reluctant to invite von Neumann. I fear he might not deign to accept.

  4. zbicyclist says:

    Even Brooks’ comedy misfires, like 1991’s “Defending Your Life”, have a thoughtful character that makes me think about them later, like thinking about at least one issue after a good seminar.

    Besides, both Brooks and I were born on the 22nd of the month, which Brooks incorporates in this iconic scene from the wonderful “Lost in America”:

    Finally, If von Neumann wins, it’s an Erdos vs von Neumann matchup in round 2. Who thinks von Neumann would have a chance in that one, against the charming Erdos? Why push someone forward who’s a sure loser in the next round?

  5. Martha (Smith) says:

    I’d like to see Von Neumann given four parameters and making an elephant wiggle his trunk (
    And if he could do it, there would be the chance that Jim Thorpe could do it if they met in a later round. (But if Brooks can do it and Von Neumann can’t — I’d say he wins over Von Neumann.)

  6. steve says:

    I think that you have to compare their life work. Real Life vs Set theory => Real Life. Modern Romance vs modern computer architecture => the computer. Lost in America vs. Neuman’s work in the Manhattan Project => the Manhattan Project. Defending Your Life vs. the H-Bomb => Defending Your Life. Mother vs. Cellular Automata => Mother. Nemo vs. von Neuman’s ability to do calculations in his head very quickly => mental math (you can always rent the movie). Finally, I think it comes down to an unsolved question: Is Doctor Stranglove based on John von Neuman? If the answer is yes, then von Neuman is way more fun than Brooks. The only person that can answer that question is von Neuman. The answer has to be von Neuman.

    • There’s a different way of looking at the Dr. Strangelove question, though. I imagine that von Neumann, while capable of answering, might refuse to do so. Brooks, on the other hand, might gladly impersonate von Neumann (or Dr. Strangelove, for that matter) and through that impersonation reveal the truth that we’re all dying to hear. Sure, this truth would be fiction, but that would only enhance it. So the greater possibilities lie with Brooks.

  7. Jonathan (another one) says:

    I have a mysterious devotion to Real Life, Comedy Minus One and The Heartbreak Kid. If von Neumann had the insight and patience to explain it to me, I’d go with him. Otherwise, Brooks.

  8. Phil says:

    The thing about von Neumann is that everybody said he was soooooo smart. Could anybody _really_ be that smart? Why didn’t he just solve everything, then?

    Supposedly someone (the intertubes say Szilard) asked one of the Hungarian Martians why Hungary produced so many geniuses at the same time, and he said No, Hungary only produced one true genius: von Neumann.

    The thing is, with this much hype the seminar is bound to be a disappointment. No person can be that smart, no seminar can be that great, and anyway if JvN talked about something super-brilliant none of the rest of us could understand it, whereas if he dumbed it down for us then what’s the point of having the smartest person on earth give the seminar?

    So it’s gotta be Brooks. He’s a funny guy. Not the funniest, but funny.

    • Phil says:

      Whoops, that parenthetical interjection was supposd to come after “asked one of the Hungarian Martians”, not before. Moving the blog seems to have cost me my login credentials, so I can’t fix it myself.

    • Steve says:

      I will go back to my Dr. Stranglove point. von Neuman may be way funnier than Brooks. Would he try to explain why game theory shows that nuclear Armageddon is a good thing? (Sure that was disturbing when he was advising our national security apparatus, but now that he is dead it would just be entertaining.) Also, I think von Neuman was that smart, but I think that he was also a great academic bullsh@tter. Reportedly, when Shannon came up with his measure of information, von Neuman told him to call it entropy because “no one knows what that is, so you’ll win every argument.” I think it would be much more fun to have a seminar where some genius gives a convincing argument for something that is completely crazy.

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