Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Last Enemy

John von Neumann was a polymathic genius. He was also an atheist. And therein lay his dilemma:

Eugene Wigner wrote of von Neumann's death [18]:

When von Neumann realised he was incurably ill, his logic forced him to realise that he would cease to exist, and hence cease to have thoughts ... It was heartbreaking to watch the frustration of his mind, when all hope was gone, in its struggle with the fate which appeared to him unavoidable but unacceptable.

In [5] von Neumann's death is described in these terms:

... his mind, the amulet on which he had always been able to rely, was becoming less dependable. Then came complete psychological breakdown; panic, screams of uncontrollable terror every night. His friend Edward Teller said, "I think that von Neumann suffered more when his mind would no longer function, than I have ever seen any human being suffer."

Von Neumann's sense of invulnerability, or simply the desire to live, was struggling with unalterable facts. He seemed to have a great fear of death until the last... No achievements and no amount of influence could save him now, as they always had in the past. Johnny von Neumann, who knew how to live so fully, did not know how to die.


  1. He did seem to resort to religious opiates at the end:

    "In 1955, von Neumann was diagnosed with what was either bone or pancreatic cancer.[7] While he was in the hospital he wrote a short monograph, The Computer and the Brain, observing that the basic computing hardware of the brain indicated a different methodology than the one used in developing the computer. Von Neumann died a year and a half later, in great pain. While at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., he invited a Roman Catholic priest, Father Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to visit him for consultation (a move which shocked some of von Neumann's friends).[8] The priest then administered to him the last Sacraments.[9] He died under military security lest he reveal military secrets while heavily medicated."

  2. Von Neumann was one of my favorite intellectual mega-genuises of all time. He was a six-sigma genius. I ranked him ahead of Feynman, Teller, Godel, even Marilyn Vos Savant.

    But without God, he was too smart for his own good.

  3. Wow, that was difficult to read!