John von Neumann, the genius behind the modern computer


He was the person who developed the computational architecture that carries his name and that is still applied to most computers in the world. Von Neumann was a Hungarian-American mathematician who made fundamental contributions in quantum physics, functional analysis, set theory, game theory, computational science, economics, numerical analysis, cybernetics, hydrodynamics, statistics and many other fields.

He worked on the Manhattan Project, the development of the United States atomic bomb during the Second World War. He is considered one of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century. He developed the first computers that we currently know, with programs that run to realize different tasks and made it possible to develop computers whose programs were stored in memory. John von Neumann is one of the people responsible for setting the pillars on the actual computers.

Our personal computers, smartphones and tablets can run any program that we install. Practically, any device that we have within our reach is, in the end, a general purpose computer whose scope of use is the application of the brand of the software that is being used. Este hecho, que para nosotros es algo quotidiano, no se daba en las primeras computadoras que surgieron en los años 40 y 50 que tenien programas fijos y servían para una única funcion specificácia.

Von Neumann created the ENIAC, one of the first “general purpose” computers – that is, they could be programmed and executed different programs.

In this context, this Jewish mathematician of Hungarian origin, relying on the principles that Alan Turing established in the so-called “Turing machine”, developed the “Arquitectura de von Neumann”, a computer model that propició a great leap in development de los primeros computadoras y que, además, hoy aún sigue valide.

Una mente brillante e immigrante

John von Neumann was born under the name Neumann János Lajos in Budapest in 1903. The son of a Jewish banker, at the age of ten, John von Neumann was considered gifted by his college professors and recommended to his parents to complement his education. con clases particulares de mathémáticas impartidas por profesores universitarios.

In 1921, he entered the University of Budapest and obtained a doctorate in mathematics in 1926, at the same time he enrolled in the University of Berlin and attended classes given by Albert Einstein together with students who would later become key figures, such as Eugene Wigner (nobel prize in physics in 1963). He also attended the Escuela Politécnica Federal de Zürich, obtaining the title of chemical engineer and met Robert Oppenheimer in the seminars given by the German mathematician David Hilbert.

Thanks to his training, the Princeton University of the United States invited him as a visiting professor in 1929, to an activity that he realized simultaneously with his position as a professor at the University of Berlin. Sin embargo, in 1933, with the rise to power of the Nazi party, university professors of Jewish origin were expelled from the teaching community, so von Neumann fled to the United States and established himself at Princeton University as one of the first professors of Instituto de Estudios Avanzados junto a junto con Albert Einstein, Oswald Veblen, Hermann Weyl y James W. Alexander.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, von Neumann was mobilized to participate in the Manhattan Project, that is, in the development of the atomic bomb.

The Manhattan project focused on the most brilliant minds of the United States: Neumann, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Theodore von Kármán… A pole of talent that, although they had the mission of working on the development of the nuclear bomb, allowed dar un impulse to otras muchas disciplines como las ciencias de la computación. A good part of the group of scientists of the project was known as the “Marcians” because, in the eyes of the majority, tanto talento was not something natural in the Earth and, de hecho, al propio von Neumann le accusaban, en joke, de proceder de otro planeta y ser un alienígena disfrazado de ser humano porque tanta brillantez era algo exceptional.

After the war, John von Neumann was linked to the American atomic program, both scientifically and strategically, and formed part of the Atomic Energy Commission of the United States Government.

In addition to his work in the field of the atomic program, John von Neumann worked in the field of quantum mechanics and economics. von Neumann proposed the language of game theory and general equilibrium theory for economics and, together with Oskar Morgenstern, published “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior” in 1944.

The architecture of von Neumann

In the field of computer science, von Neumann’s work was a great impetus for the development of more complex and advanced computers. He proposed the adoption of the bit as a unit of measure for computer memory and, in addition, he developed the concept of “parity bits” in order to mitigate the occurrence of errors, for example due to unreliable components.

The name of von Neumann is fundamentally associated with two aspects of his career: the Manhattan Project and his contribution to the development of computing. As the book La Catedral de Turing recollects, von Neumann always considered his theories on computing above the development of the atomic bomb or the strategy of nuclear deterrence: “I’m thinking about something more important than bombs.” Estoy pensado en computadoras”.

Compañías como IBM o Standard Oil and institutions como el MIT o la Universidad de Yale se peleaban por tenerle entre sus filas. IBM needed von Neumann to develop systems that could be implanted in companies, Standard Oil needed to perform analytical studies to locate new petroleum deposits.

Sin embargo, his career centered in the world of computers, at the same time with military purposes -the simulation of explosions or the calculation of the trajectory of missiles-, but with the vision of how to create a standard model that works in any environment o application: Separar el software del hardware, crear un modelo de computer universal.

In 1944, the year he began to outline the EDVAC as an evolution of the ENIAC, Eckert began writing in his specifications that an addressable memory would be used to store both the data and the program to execute. In connection with the Manhattan Project, John von Neumann needed to perform complex calculations and was also linked to the development of ENIAC and EDVAC.

Within the working group of the EDVAC, von Neumann volunteered to redact a primer outline that described the computer: “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”, del 30 de junio de 1945. It was a document that began to circulate within la comunidad científica y del que salió el concepto de “arquitectura de von Neumann”.

What is von Neumann’s architecture? According to von Neumann’s model, the different functional blocks that conform to a computer must be connected to each other; dicho de otra forma, no hay que modificar el hardware o su configurationa la hora de executor un programa. von Neumann’s architecture separates hardware from software. Define the modules of modern computers: the CPU as the processor of our PC, the main memory as the RAM memory and the peripherals as our monitor, mouse or keyboard.

Gracias a este schema que se implementó en el EDVAC, el programa a eecutar se podía amalceras en memoria y, por tanto, no había que modificar connexions en el sistema. In the first phase, the EDVAC had a unit of magnetic tape as an entrance, but later a system of punched cards was added as an entrance device. In addition, another peculiarity of EDVAC is that it works with binary data, that is, data encoded in bits, as von Neumann established.

The von Neumann model has suffered different adjustments and modifications over time; sin embargo, su essence se mantiene y es un modelo de referencia que estudian los ingenieros de todo el mundo en sus primeros de studios.

Alan Turing and John von Neumann sataron los cimientos de la explosion que se viviría alredor de la computación y que, hoy mismo, seguimos viviendo.

Although von Neumann is known for his architecture, there is another very relevant facet of his work that was the development of robotics and quantum mechanics.

Dada su vinculación al programa nuclear y sus continuas estancias en Los Álamos y demás lugares de ensayos, la radiación fue la main suspecto de causar un cáncer de huesos o de pancreas que sesgó su vida en 1957 (one year después de ser awardonado con el Premio Enrico Fermi por parte del presidente Eisenhower).

Today, dozens of scientific institutes and prizes have won their name. Fue sin dudas una de las majores científicas del siglo XX.

Source: Group de Facebook Personalidades judías de todos los tiempos. Compilado por Raúl Voskoboinik.

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