Life with Father

March 1, 2005

John von Neumann with Marina, age 11, in Santa Fe.

Marina von Neumann Whitman

To begin, a few comments prompted by Bill Aspray's very interesting talk.
First, I always wondered why it was that, in the late twenties and early thirties, my father led a rather peripatetic existence, spending half a year in Princeton and half a year in Berlin. Now I know it was because he was young and had only half a professorship at Princeton, and so he went back to Germany for the other half and earned his keep there.

Second, I'm now a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study, and the little, very ugly brick building that was built to house the IAS computer, when my father finally convinced the Institute that it wouldn't lose its virginity if it did something so practical, is still there. But I'm not sure how my father would feel about the use it's currently being put to: It's now the IAS day care center.

One point I know a little bit about is my father's relationship with Einstein. I don't know anything about the extent, if any, to which they worked together, but they were, in the early days, social friends. And there is a famous story, attested to by my mother:

One evening, while my father was off, heaven knows where---as Bill mentioned he was pretty peripatetic---the Einsteins took my mother, who was at that point eight and a half months pregnant with what turned out to be me, to a concert in Newark. Einstein was notably absentminded and, apparently, the concert was not to his liking because, somewhere in the middle of it, he said, "Come on, Elsa, let's go home." So, the Einsteins went home.

But there was one thing they forgot, and that was my very pregnant mother. She found herself having to take the milk train, at two o'clock in the morning, back to Princeton---and that was accomplished, without mishap. The next morning, she got up and there were two dozen roses from Einstein, with an abject apology for having forgotten her. So, at least at that time, they were friends.

I think, as time went on, and particularly when Einstein's wife died, they grew apart. And by the time I reached the age of consciousness, I saw more of Einstein because, as it happened, he used to play string quartets with my best friend, who lived next door to him. And he would wander into the famous afternoon teas at the Institute, and I would occasionally see him there.


I must confess to considerable misgivings about being here tonight. When I was first asked to participate in this occasion, I was concerned that obviously---at least it is obvious to me---I have no competence to comment on the major specialized areas in which my father made noteworthy contributions, some of which will be discussed in more detail by the next two speakers. And I couldn't quite see, therefore, what I could add to these proceedings, but I finally agreed to participate.

In Woody Allen's famous phrase, ninety percent of life is just showing up. I figured that at least I would make that contribution to this occasion. And I have fulfilled it already, by simply standing here in front of you.

But I will comment briefly, from my observation point, on what it was that motivated my father in his very hectic life. And then I'll spend a few more minutes on his own view of his intellectual legacy and expectations for the future, and his concerns, really his fears, about the longevity of his own contributions. That may sound strange, but it was something about which he was remarkably insecure.

First, some comments on motivation---from the point of view of someone whose relationship with my father was all too brief, but, while it lasted, quite close. I was 21 years old and just married when he died---and off to college, of course, before that. I hadn't had much adult interaction with him, but, as I look back over what's been said and written during the nearly fifty years since his death, it seems to me that, of the forces that drove him, most have often been poorly understood or maybe badly misunderstood. One purportedly serious evaluation, for example, combined pop sociology and Marxist ideology to conclude that von Neumann was driven by the desire for power and the fascination of being close to the rich and powerful.

As Bill Aspray mentioned, my father certainly had a lot of influential relationships. There's no question that he enjoyed a good life and liked to live well---his parties were famous---and counted celebrities among his friends and colleagues. He was also always dressed like a banker rather than an academic. There's a wonderful picture of my father in a string of people going down the Grand Canyon on mules, and there are two odd things about it. One of them is that, while everybody else is dressed in jeans and polo shirts, my father is dressed in a full three-piece banker's suit. The second thing about it is that his mule is facing the opposite direction from everybody else's. This is preserved for posterity in the photograph, which I have in my collection.

There's a wonderful picture of father in a string of people going down the Grand Canyon on mules," said Marina von Neumann Whitman, "and there are two odd things about it." One is that he is dressed in a full three-piece banker's suit and the other is that his mule is facing the opposite direction from everybody else's. Photos from the collection of Marina von Neumann Whitman.

More seriously, I believe his wide ranging activities, including his worldly involvement as well as his strictly intellectual pursuits, were motivated by two very profound convictions. The first was the overriding responsibility he felt that everybody had---he made his point particularly to his own family, but I think he felt it more generally---to make full use of whatever intellectual capabilities we were endowed with. He had the scientist's passion for learning and discovery for its own sake, as well as for practical applications, and the genius's ego-driven concern for the durability of his own contributions.

His second strong motivating conviction was the critical importance of an environment of political freedom for the pursuit of these intellectual endeavors and for the welfare of mankind in general.

I'm convinced, in fact, that all his involvement in the halls of power was driven by his sense of the fragility of that freedom. By the beginning of the 1930s, if not even earlier, he was convinced that the lights of civilization would be snuffed out all over Europe by the threat of totalitarianism from the right, that is, the rise of Nazism. So, he made an unequivocal commitment to his home in the new world, to fight to preserve and re-establish freedom from that new beachhead.

In the forties and fifties, he was equally convinced that the threat to civilization was now totalitarianism on the left, and his commitment was just as unequivocal: to fighting it, with whatever weapons we had, scientific and economic as well as military. It was a matter of utter indifference to him, I think, whether the threat came from the right or from the left. What motivated both his reactions to the extremes on the left and right and his uncompromisingly hard-line attitude was his belief in the overriding importance of political freedom, his strong sense of its continuing fragility, and his conviction that it was in the United States, and the passionate defense of the United States, that its best hope lay.

Now, for a little bit about John von Neumann's legacy, from the vantage point of his daughter and only child. In particular, I'll focus on his concerns during the last two years of his life, especially toward the end when he became deeply concerned about the question of his ongoing legacy.

He was concerned partly with immortality in the personal or religious sense, but that's another topic. He was also profoundly concerned, however, with the nature of his legacy in this world, in two respects.

One had to do with the durability of his work---his intellectual contribution---and, as I said, he was surprisingly insecure about that. But, interestingly enough, I don't think he was a very accurate prophet regarding the twists and turns the practical applications of his pioneering work would take. He clearly expected, for example, that the computer would have a major impact on scientific research and military work. He was particularly interested in its role in advancing the accuracy of weather forecasting and, ultimately, climate modification. He really believed, I think, that the ultimate military weapon would be the ability to modify weather. I don't think that progress in this area has been nearly as extensive or fast as he hoped and expected.

Similarly, continuing on his concern about his legacy, I think he anticipated that the theory of games would have a more immediate impact---to borrow John McDonald's book title---on "Poker, Business and War" than it did. It did have an immediate impact on war: In fact, one of the first applications of the minimax theorem was to the issue of sweeping German undersea mines, which is what he was doing in England, as Bill Aspray mentioned. Of course, it really took a very long time for game theory to have a significant influence on my own field, economics---I think much longer than he would have expected. In fact, ironically, both the originators of the theory of games and economic behavior, von Neumann and Morgenstern, were dead by the time a Nobel prize was awarded in economics for the development of game theory. They wrote the book during World War II, and it was not until the 1990s that the contribution of game theory to economics finally came to be widely recognized.

On the other hand, if anyone had ever told him that General Motors, the company where I was an executive for some thirteen years, would produce and utilize literally millions of computers every year, I think he would have been stunned. And the notion of adults campaigning against computers as corrupters of youth, through video games, would have amused and secretly pleased the childlike aspect of his personality.

And I can't even imagine what he would have thought of spam or pornography on the Internet, or the danger that the written raw material for the historians of the future might permanently disappear, unless somebody---maybe there are people in this room who have worked on it---develops better methods of allowing old machines to communicate with newer machines, than I found when trying to translate documents from my Macintosh of the early 1990s to my 2003 PC.

The second aspect of John von Neumann's concern about his earthly legacy was, to put it quite simply, me. I was his only offspring, and, toward the end of his life, he became acutely conscious that all his eggs were in one basket -if biological inaccuracy can be forgiven for the sake of metaphor. So he put tremendous pressure on me to perform to the peak of my ability and made clear his displeasure with the path I seemed to be taking: I married young, right out of college. He felt that this was a bad beginning, not because he had anything against my husband, of whom he was quite fond, in fact---he's now been my husband for 46 years, by the way---but because he feared, and I think that in the 1950s it was a reasonable fear, that a woman who married young and, particularly, who married an impoverished young professor of English, was very probably reducing her own chances of making a significant intellectual or professional contribution. Statistically, he was right, and, not surprisingly, he tended to take a rather statistical and probabilistic view of the world.

I'd like to think, though, that in this particular case he was wrong. I'm obviously no John von Neumann, but I've had a reasonably successful and very rewarding career as an academic economist, a presidential adviser, and a corporate executive. And now I've cycled back into the academic world again.

Then, beyond me, there's another generation, the grandchildren whose accomplishments he couldn't foresee because he died far too early, before they were born or even contemplated. But I am really sorry he never got to know the grandson who has translated a six year old's dream of someday finding a cure for cancer into a career as a molecular biologist doing research on the chemistry of intra- and inter-cellular message transmission, as a member of the faculty of the Harvard Medical School. As a matter of fact, my son---I think he had just gotten his PhD---met Stan Ulam, a mathematician who was one of my father's closest friends. And actually, Stan, the mathematician, and Malcolm Whitman, the molecular biologist, started talking about some work they might do together, which, I think, would have been a rather charming development. Sadly, Stan's sudden death cut off any possibility of that. But I think that the fact that Malcolm and his colleagues are exploring the mysteries of the universe, mysteries as profound as any of those that preoccupied my father, would have been satisfying to my father, as would the fact that the work that these modern biologists are doing is, in some sense, a fitting sequel to my father's own explorations, culminating in his posthumously published computer book The Computer and the Brain, into the relationships amongst mechanical, electrical, chemical, and biological processes.

And I'm equally sorry that he could never know his granddaughter, who, having avoided scientific subjects throughout her university career, realized eventually that her newly focused goal of radically improving health care in America would require medical training, and that medical training, in turn, would require filling a substantial gap between ninth-grade biology, which had been her last science course, and premedical requirements. But she filled the gap and is now a physician and a teacher on the clinical faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine. (I'm thankful never to have had to go to a Harvard-Yale game with the two of them.) She has fashioned a career that harnesses her skills in the service of those whose access to medical providers is limited by accidents of either geography or socioeconomic situation. In this case, in addition to training Yale residents in internal medicine, she practices medicine in an inner-city, clinic-affiliated hospital in Connecticut.

And, by now, there's still another generation. Of course, like all grandchildren, my grandchildren are absolutely the smartest and most talented children that ever existed. But since they are only six and three years old, there's no telling what kind of contribution they're going to make.

I will end with a story. My grandson was three or four when his father took him to the Boston Science Museum. When they came back at the end of the day, I asked, "William how did you like the museum?" He said, "It was wonderful. I saw a Tyrannosaurus Rex, I saw a Brontosaurus, and I saw a picture of my great grandfather."

As far as he was concerned, they all came from the same period.


UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER: Did your father have any relationship with John Nash?

MARINA WHITMAN: No, not as far as I know. As a matter of fact, Sylvia Nasar, who wrote the book A Beautiful Mind, says this---Sylvia's a very good reporter, and I believe her story. She says that Nash did once go to see my father and talk about some of his (Nash's) ideas with him and that my father was somewhat dismissive. In fact, Nash was quite hurt, and never went back. So, by the time Nash was coming along and working in game theory, my father was already very distracted on a whole wide variety of things, and my guess is that if you were to have said to him, "Who is John Nash?" he wouldn't have had the vaguest idea. The meeting stuck with Nash, but it didn't stick with my father, I suspect.

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