Tuesday, November 23, 2004


von Neumann and the Classics

John von Neumann (1903-1957) was a towering figure in twentieth century mathematics and also a man of wide reading and culture. S.M. Ulam, in Adventures of a Mathematician (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), relates some interesting anecdotes about von Neumann's fondness for the classics.

p. 102:
His knowledge of history was really encyclopedic, but what he liked and knew best was ancient history. He was a great admirer of the concise and wonderful way the Greek historians wrote. His knowledge of Greek enabled him to read Thucydides, Herodotus, and others in the original; his knowledge of Latin was even better.

The story of the Athenian expedition to the island of Melos, the atrocities and killings that followed, and the lengthy debates between the opposing parties fascinated him for reasons which I never quite understood. He seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the brutality of a civilized people like the ancient Greeks. For him, I think it threw a certain, not-too-complimentary light on human nature in general. Perhaps he thought it illustrated the fact that once embarked on a certain course, it is fated that ambition and pride will prevent a people from swerving from a chosen course and inexorably it may lead to awful ends, as in the Greek tragedies. Needless to say this prophetically anticipated the vaster and more terrible madness of the Nazis. Johnny was very much aware of the worsening political situation. In a Pythian manner, he foresaw the coming catastrophe.
p. 244:
By then he was very, very ill. I would sit with him and try to distract him. There was still some scientific curiosity in him; his memory still seemed to work sporadically, and on occasion almost uncannily well. I will never forget the scene a few days before he died. I was reading to him in Greek from his worn copy of Thucydides a story he liked especially about the Athenians' attack on Melos, and also the speech of Pericles. He remembered enough to correct an occasional mistake or mispronunciation on my part.

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