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Friday, March 16, 2012


[The title is of course a shameless steal from Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, a.k.a. Tom and Ray Magliazzi on PBS.]

I mentioned yesterday that I am reading a curious book called Turing's Castle by George Dyson, the son of the great Freeman Dyson.  The book is ostensibly about the invention of the digital computer, and I guess sooner or later it will get around to talking about that, but Dyson seems incapable of resisting even the slightest temptation to digress.  An early part of his story -- all of which is quite fascinating, by the way -- deals with the establishment of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton.  The Institute was built on land that originally was the Olden Farm.  Now, that is an interesting fact that in a normal book would be good for a paragraph.  Dyson, on the other hand, takes us all the way back to the Revolutionary War and traces the ownership and fate of the land across three centuries.  Why?  So far as I can  make out, for no better reason than that he collected a mass of research notes along the way to writing the book, and cannot leave anything out. 

There are payoffs to this odd style of narration, however.  Chapter Four is devoted to the family background, childhood, development, and character traits one of the authentically great minds of the twentieth or any other century, John von Neumann [I shall leave to one side the rather mysterious and complex relationship between this Americanization of his name and the original Hungarian, also gone into at great length by Dyson.]   Now, I have always had secret fantasies about having a mind like von Neumann's.  Well, maybe not so secret.  I seem to recall that at some point in my autobiography, I confessed that there are two abilities whose lack I really regret -- a facility with the learning of languages and the ability to grasp deep formal mathematical structures immediately and intuitively.  [The ability to play the violin or viola like Pinchas Zuckerman is a different thing, involving as it does uncounted hours of hard practice that I was never willing to put in.]  von Neumann possessed that capacity to such a degree that even world-famous mathematicians and physicists stood in awe of him.  For those of you who are unfamilair with von Neumann, perhaps it will suffice to say that in the course of his astonishing career, he made brief forays into Logic, Quantum Mechanics, and Economics, in each of which he proved extremely important results.  He was also, of course, the creator of Game Theory, and -- this is why he appears in this book -- the seminal mind behind the creation of the digital computer.

OK, what does this have to do with me?  Well, in Chapter Four, Dyson assembles quotations from many of the people who knew von Neumann and worked with him, in which we get a picture of how his mind worked.  AND IT TURNS OUT THAT HIS MIND WORKED THE WAY MINE DOES.

Now, that is the intellectual equivalent of the old joke about the flea crawling up the elephant's hind leg and yelling "Rape!"  von Neumann's mind worked like mine?  Yeah right.  And I look like Brad Pitt, except for the face and the body.  Let me try to explain.  When von Neumann encountered a problem, he would puzzle over it until he had disassembled it into its fundamental elements, and then he would reassemble them into a story that, by its pelliucid clarity, dissolved the problem as though it had never been there.  He worked in his head, as it were, and as a consequence wrote with blinding speed.  What others had to master by a slow and linear process, step by step, he grasped in a single intellectual intuition, as though he were simply looking at a painting rather than assembling it in his mind pixil by pixil.

Now, in a debased, trivial, second-rate fashion, that is the way my mind works.,  I experience deep intellectual problems as stories, which I tell to myself over and over until I can grasp the narrative line as firmly as I can grasp the narrative line of Jack and the Beanstalk.  That is how I managed to penetrate the inner mysteries of the Critique of Pure Reason, of Das Kapital, of A Treatise of Human Nature.  And it is why I write so fast, without revisions, once I start telling the story on paper.  If it were not for the people like John von Neumann, I might think I was one helluva fellow.  It is, I suppose, what it was like to be Antonio Salieri.  Salieri was, after all, a very successful musician, as the world measures these things, court composer to the Hapsburg Emperor and all.  He just had the great misfortune to live at the same time as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was to music what von Neumann was to mathematics.

Well, this blog post is a more than ordinarily embarrassing self-revelation, so I think I will just bring it to a close and go back to reading Dyson's book.


Frank said...

Thanks, Professor Wolff!
Currently digging into Turing's Castle and quite addicted to it.

I've just recently started following your blog, and humbly imagine my mind working as yours does. :-)

I've shared the link to your post on Google+.

Thanks again - Frank

Don Schneier said...

On the one hand, there is Spinoza's distinction between 'Intuition' and 'Reason'. But, on the other, "blinding speed" may indicate a difference in rate, not in kind, of intellectual process.

formerly a wage slave said...

If I understand this method of creation, it suggests a new form of torture/ hell: let a person begin to work on a project/ think about something/ write something, and allow a degree of immersion, but not even enough time to complete half the essay/ paper/piece of writing/ not enough time to complete a pattern of thought--- and then interrupt them! Actually , that sounds like my life since july 2009........and even significant chunks of what I experienced prior to that time.......