Tangents of Trinity

April 25 2024 · books computation

Recommending a few books which touch on aspects of the Manhattan Project:

The Last Man who Knew Everything is a historical and scientific biography of Enrico Fermi. We learn about Fermi, his work, and best of all we hear the story of the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction under the University of Chicago.

Racing for the Bomb documents the life and work of Leslie Groves, the man in charge of the Manhattan Project. Before reading this my understanding of the Manhattan project was discrete fragments. Oppenheimer from reputation and the more recent film, Feynman from his anecdotes and stories describing Los Alamos, and the eventual bomb mission in Japan. This book provides a biography of Groves that documents the lead up to the Manhattan Project, then provides a detailed account of the Manhattan Project from day one through to the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The Maniac is a historical fiction which surrounds the life and work of John von Neumann. The format lends itself to easy reading; small vignettes told by different characters – Klara Dan von Neumann, Feynman, Wigner, Bigelow, and more. The book gives glimpses into the historical account of von Neumann’s work: Trinity, game theory, M.A.D, the creation of general purpose computers at the IAS, and that in which he applied his computers – organic life, weather prediction, and calculations for hydrogen bombs. This historical account is embossed with emotion, meaning, conversations, and anecdotes created by the author. We start with a young and innocent math prodigy in school who seeks to formalise the world. He works under Hilbert until Godel’s bombshell.

With his [von Neumann’s] Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, for example, he wasn’t trying to fight a war, or beat the casino, or finally win a game of poker, he was aiming at nothing less than the complete mathematization of human motivation, he was trying to capture some part of mankind’s soul with mathematics

The author treats this youthful interest in mathematics and gradually dials up the darkness and hyperbole as the book goes on.

To the uninitiated it is madness. That explains the acronym that somebody coined for the most deranged application of one of von Neumann’s ideas: MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. It’s how America chose to fight the Cold War, a game of chicken played out on a planetary scale with weapons powerful enough to blow up the entire world. MAD was a doctrine of deterrence and retaliation that said that the only way to avoid nuclear warfare between the superpowers was for the US and the USSR to amass such a gargantuan hoard of atomic weapons that any nuclear attack would result in the complete annihilation of both countries. It was perfect rational insanity.

Moving on to computation:

The first goal that von Neumann set for the MANIAC was to destroy life as we know it: in the summer of 1951, a team of scientists from Los Alamos travelled to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and introduced a large thermonuclear calculation into the computer. It ran twenty-four hours a day for two months, processed more than a million punchcards, and yielded a single YES/NO answer.

One is left with a slanted character of von Neumann. The historical account of his intellect and achievements has built him into an infallible and revered genius. The author balanced this by adding a shadow of madness, for one would need to be to be involved in some of the projects von Neumann worked on. Perhaps. This dimension adds intrigue to the book and made me question the motives and emotions of von Neumann and his associates. Of course this aspect is fictionalised, but it’s what makes this book such a good read.

The book ends with a quote from Godel in a letter to his mother. Brilliant.

Our early existence, since it in itself has a very doubtful meaning, can only be a means towards a goal of another existence. The idea that everything in the world has a meaning is, after all, precisely analogous to the principle that everything has a cause, on which the whole of science rests.

Honourable mention: Turing’s Cathedral: The origins of the digital universe - George Dyson. Centred around computation, the book covers von Neumann’s time at the IAS.

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