John von Neumann Birthday Centennial

March 1, 2005


Julian Bigelow, Herman Goldstine (who died in 2004, at the age of 90), J. Robert Oppenheimer, and John von Neumann with the Institute for Advanced Study computer, Princeton, 1952. Photo from the collection of Marina von Neumann Whitman.

J.F. Grcar

In celebration of John von Neumann's 100th birthday, a series of four lectures were presented on the evening of February 10, 2003, during the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, in San Diego. The venue was appropriate because von Neumann spent much of the later part of his life, in the 1950s, as an unofficial ambassador for computational science. He was then the only senior American scientist who had experience with the new computers (digital, electronic, and programmable) and a vision of their future importance. No doubt, he would have relished the chance to attend a conference such as this.

The first speaker, William Aspray, described the "interesting times" during which computers were invented. His remarks were based on his history [1] of this period in von Neumann's life. We were honored to have John von Neumann's daughter, Marina von Neumann Whitman, as our second speaker. Other accounts of von Neumann's life can be found in books by two of his colleagues [3] and [6]. Our third speaker, Peter Lax, provided both mathematical and international perspectives on John von Neumann's career. Finally, Pete Stewart spoke about von Neumann's numerical error analysis [7] in the context of later work; this talk did not lend itself to transcription, but interested readers can consult the historical notes in [4]. (Interested readers can find additional information about von Neumann's work in [2].)

Together, the speakers gave the audience a remarkable evening. The Department of Energy's Applied Mathematical Sciences program provided partial support for these lectures. Thanks are also due to SIAM and William Kolata, to our emcee, Gene Golub (who proposed that SIAM hold a von Neumann celebration), to Paul Saylor for recording and editing, and to Barbara Lytle for the transcriptions.

References
[1] W. Aspray, John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990.
[2] J. Glimm, J. Impagliazzo, and I. Singer, eds., The Legacy of John von Neumann, Proceedings of Symposia in Pure Mathematics, Vol. 50, American Mathematical Society, Providence, Rhode Island, 1990.
[3] H.H. Goldstine, The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1972.
[4] G.W. Stewart, Matrix Algorithms 1: Basic Decompositions, SIAM, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1998.
[5] A.H. Taub, ed., John von Neumann Collected Works, Macmillan, New York, 1963.
[6] S.M. Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1976.
[7] J. von Neumann and H.H. Goldstine, Numerical inverting of matrices of high order, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., 53 (11), 1021-1099, November 1947. Reprinted in [5], Vol. 5, 1963, 479-557.

J.F. Grcar and Gene Golub organized the John von Neumann Birthday Centennial.


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