Who is Von Neumann? John Von Neumann; the story of a G-E-N-I-U-S

The history of computer science has some names of its own, but without these it would be difficult to understand the current state of this influential science today.

If we could establish a firmament of computer stars, undoubtedly one of the most bright ones would correspond to that of the Hungarian mathematician John Von Neumann.

The creator of the famous architecture of Von Neumann was not only influential in his time, but his creation has survived the passage of decades in an ever changing science, which speaks of the solidity and depth of his thoughts.

In this article we are going to get a little closer to the figure of John Von Neumann, to know his story and part of his legacy. Let’s travel to the first half of the 20th century …

Who is von Neumann? The story of John Von Neumann

It was the year 1903, and the new Century had burst into a roar of discoveries and innovations. However, there were still decades to go before anyone could hear about what we now call “computing”.

That year he was born in Budapest, in the bosom of a wealthy family and under the name of Neumann János Lajos, John Von Neumann.

He was considered a child prodigy from a very early age, and Von Neumann discovered in mathematics the way to unleash his genius. And he did not do that in any way, but in a big way, surrounding himself with some of the greatest figures of his time, such as Albert Einstein, from whom he received a class at the University of Berlin, Eugene Wigner, with whom he had a friendship all his life or Robert Oppenheimer. He obtained his doctorate in mathematics in 1926, at 23 years of age.

However, not everything was easy in the youth of the Hungarian genius. His Jewish origin and the rise of Nazism meant that, in 1933, he had to emigrate to the United States, to continue working as a professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies.

These movements of chance undoubtedly contributed decisively in many of the experiences in which he was involved during the following years. For example, he was one of the participants in the Manhattan Project, responsible for the design of the atomic bomb implosion method.

At that time, Von Neumann was already considered an absolute eminence and had earned the reputation of being a scientist of exceptional talent, to the point of awakening admiration among all his colleagues. In that context, he met Herman Goldstine, who told him about his work at ENIAC.

But who is Von Neumann? Von Neumann and computer science

Although he was not a computer engineer, when we talk about John Von Neumann we do it about one of the greatest geniuses in History, and his influence was such that he changed several fields of the knowledge. He was able, for example, to propose the language of Game Theory, so relevant in economics. He also made great contributions to the field of quantum mechanics. And its impact on computing, of course, was big. In fact, the field of computing was more valued by von Neumann himself when referring to his own work.

To understand the origin of Von Neumann’s architecture it is necessary to understand the context of the moment. At that time, the few existing computers were dedicated to very specific tasks (for example, in the case of ENIAC, the calculation of trajectories for ballistics); however, Von Neumann’s dream was to create a machine capable of serving any type of application.

His work on EDVAC was the way to develop his ideas, which he specified in documents like “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”, published on June 30, 1945 and that gave rise to the “architecture of Von Neumann” (in this regard, it must be said that some people consider that the contribution to the architecture of the creators of ENIAC, Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly, was also very relevant).

Roughly speaking, the architecture of Von Neumann consists of a series of fixed functional blocks that must be part of any computer. These would be:

  • The CPU (Central Processing Unit), nuclear block the computer, responsible for computing and controlling the operation of the other components. The CPU, in turn, would be divided between the Control Unit and the Arithmetic-Logical Unit.
  • The Main memory, which would store data and instructions.
  • The Peripherals, (keyboard or monitor, for example), which would be responsible for “connect to the outside” and allow data entry and exit.
  • The Buses, which would be the different connections that allow communication between the different blocks.

Does this model sound familiar? Indeed, with modifications and additions, but this architecture is still the basis of the computers we use today, and continues to be studied by engineers in universities around the world.

In addition to these, Von Neumann made other contributions to computer science, for example through the creation of the merge sort algorithm. But who is Von Neumann?

John Von Neumann died in 1957 because of cancer, probably as a result of radiation received during his years of work in the field of atomic energy. Legend has it that he was surrounded by the military, because he knew so many secrets that it was feared that he would reveal important information under the effects of the medication. It is necessary to remember that, at that time, Von Neumann was a very influential figure, not only in the scientific field, but also enjoying a considerable political influence.

After a very particular personality (it was said that he played tennis with work clothes, and that he read books while driving, which would have caused some accidents), without a doubt he was one of the greatest geniuses of the XX Century. In addition to his talent, his imagination was so fertile as to imagine solutions for the mining of the Moon, through self-replicating machines – known as Von Neumann Machines – that would inspire new disciplines such as nanotechnology. Among many other ideas.

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