John von Neumann, mathematics and the Manhattan Project 

The film Oppenheimer has been a global success both critically and commercially. It is a dramatised re-telling of the factual story of Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, which led to the manufacture of the atomic bomb. Mathematics were at the heart of the scientific research behind it. And yet one of the most influential mathematicians involved in the project is not portrayed in the film. Oppenheimer himself was already famous and thanks to the film, his name is now globally recognised. By contrast – and the film has done nothing to change this – in most countries few people outside of scientific and mathematical circles will ever have heard of John von Neumann. The exception is in Hungary, where his reputation as a figure of great scientific importance is enormous.  Within robotics education, the Neumann principles or architecture are well-known. Indeed, von Neumann’s contribution to the development of computing and by extension, robotics are greater than his relative obscurity would suggest.  

Last year was the 120th anniversary of János Neumann’s birth in Budapest. Hungary’s John von Neumann Computer Society (NJSZT) did not miss the opportunity to celebrate the anniversary with a large-scale series of events presenting Neumann’s heritage in a variety of ways, including the 16th Hungarian Youth Robot Cup competition .  

Born into a wealthy, educated family, the young János proved to be capable of Ancient Greek and complex mental arithmetic at just six years old and by the age of 19 he had published two major mathematics papers. Many more were to follow, at a rate of one a month. After teaching in Germany, Neumann accepted a post at Princeton in 1929 and became a naturalised US citizen in 1937, by which time he had anglicised his name to John von Neumann. Posterity records him as a mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, engineer and polymath. Given those attributes, it seems superfluous to mention in addition his fluency in several languages (and conversational skills in others) and an encyclopedic knowledge of classical history. In 1943, von Neumann joined the wartime Manhattan Project and contributed to the complex calculations required to build an atomic weapon. The sheer scale of calculations required for this undertaking led to his interest in machine-aided numerical calculation. From this flowed what are now understood as the Neumann principles.     

To understand a little more about Neumann’s significance, we turned to Imre Paniti, a familiar figure within the euRobotics community as the Hungarian national coordinator for European Robotics Week and the primary contact of EMI Lab., HUN-REN SZTAKI (the Hungarian Research Network Institute Science and Control, euRobotics Member 43).   

Imre briefly outlined von Neumann’s legacy: “Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann is best known for the Neumann principles: 1. fully electronic computer; 2. application of the binary number system; 3. application of arithmetic unit (universal Turing machine); 4. application of a central control unit and 5. internal program and data storage. Without these it would be difficult to imagine a modern digital control-based robot.” 

While von Neumann’s name may have been absent from the rolling credits at the end of ‘Oppenheimer’, it lives on in the IEEE John von Neumann Medal and other awards for scientific research and mathematics. In the context of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer is a towering figure in public acclaim, von Neumann much less so, although his contribution to the project’s fulfilment is undeniable.  Beyond mortality and the Earth’s confines, von Neumann and Oppenheimer share a common feature – both have given their name to craters on the Moon. Perhaps inevitably, Oppenheimer’s is larger…