Jewish Mathematicians Who Changed the Course of History

May 6, 2020
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Jewish Contributions to Humanity #2:
Original research by Walter L. Field.
Sponsored by Irwin S. Field.

JOHN VON NEUMANN (1903-1957) b. Budapest, Hungary.
By the time John von Neumann died at the young age of 53, the talent he demonstrated early on as a child prodigy was but a hint of what would become his long list of contributions to science and humanity. After receiving his Ph.D. in math and a subsequent degree in chemical engineering in Switzerland, von Neumann, at 30, accepted a position with Princeton University, where he remained until his death. Here are a few of his key contributions, along with a look at the great scientist who mentored him.

  • QUANTUM MECHANICS: Quantum mechanics is a science that explains the behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic scale. In 1932, von Neumann revolutionized our understanding of the atomic nature of our universe by establishing a mathematical framework with which we can understand it, called the Dirac-von Neumann axioms. These axioms gave scientists a way to interpret, debate and understand incredibly complex theories that were previously much more difficult to grasp.
  • COMPUTING: Considered a pioneer in the field of using computers to solve complex problems and predict and forecast future events, von Neumann’s theories led to the stored-program technique, which basically explains how a computer can store vast amounts of diverse information, instructions, programs, and memory. An example of a computer that’s fundamentally basic and lacks a stored-program technique is your desk calculator. The computer on which this was written, however, uses von Neumann’s stored-program technique, also known as Von Neumann architecture.
  • GAME THEORY: John von Neumann was the mathematical founder of game theory, which is humanity’s rational, mathematical explanation for strategic decision making. Universities across the world teach it in fields such as economics, mathematics, and even international relations, and it helps humans understand optimal strategies when there are situations of potential conflict and cooperation between rational decision-makers whose aim is to maximize their gain and minimize their loss. The number of practical applications of game theory is innumerable, and von Neumann’s mathematical and axiomatic simplifications of “zero sum” situations impacted public policy, particularly during the Cold War.

GABOR SZEGO (1895-1985) b. Kunhegyes, Hungary.

Von Neumann’s mentor, and a master in his own right. Although Szego was one of the most brilliant mathematicians of his generation, it was his mentorship of Von Neumann for which history will remember him. When, at 15, Von Neumann was recognized as a mathematical genius, he was sent to Szego to study advanced calculus. After his first session tutoring the young Von Neumann, word has it, Szego was brought to tears when he spoke with his wife about his new student. But not to undersell his own contributions to mathematics, each of Szego’s four books are classics of mathematical analytics, he left a lasting legacy on his students and colleagues at Stanford University, and he produced brilliant analyses of Toeplitz matrices, orthogonal polynomials and other areas of applied mathematics.

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