Life & Culture

The Maniac review: Huge ideas spread too thin

There are lively moments but this fictionalised account of 20th-century polymath John von Neumann will disappoint many readers


FF8X90 JOHN von NEUMANN (1903-1957)./nThe American (Hungarian-born) mathematician, right, with J. Robert Oppenheimer at the 1952 dedication ceremony for the computer built at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, of which Neumann was director.

The Maniac
by Benjamín Labatut
Pushkin Press, £20.00

The moment in history when artificial intelligence will supersede human capabilities is known in the literature as “the singularity”, a term coined by the extraordinary 20th-century polymath John von Neumann, who made extraordinary contributions to the advancement of computer science, along with many other fields.

Chilean author Benjamín Labatut’s new novel offers a semi-fictionalised account of von Neumann’s life, bringing out both the creativity and destructiveness of his work, particularly with reference to the troubling potential of AI.

It serves as an intriguing companion piece to Labatut’s previous novel, When We Cease To Understand The World, which was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, and which among other portentous scientific discoveries included the story of Prussian Blue, a dye produced by the gas Zyklon B, which was used in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and which stained the walls blue.

Von Neumann was born into a wealthy and assimilated Jewish-Hungarian family in 1903.

A child prodigy, by the end of his secondary schooling he had published two major mathematical papers and won a national prize in mathematics. A stellar academic career followed, including positions at Berlin, Hamburg, and Princeton (in 1929).

The range of his research interests was exceptionally broad, including pure and applied mathematics, physics, economics, computer science, game theory, and biology.

He was also deeply involved in defence work: a consultant on the Manhattan Project and a staunch proponent of the hydrogen bomb. Mutually Assured Destruction, the key strategic doctrine of the Cold War, was another von Neumann coinage.

It is hard for a lay person to gain more than a superficial grasp of von Neumann’s output, much of which was highly technical. Labatut gives us limited help in this regard.

What we get in the central section of The Maniac is a repetitious, linear account of von Neumann’s life from the point of view of his acquaintances.

He moves from one intellectual discipline to another, exuberantly searching for its mathematical foundations, in the conviction that any problem within that domain would be solved, if only enough computer power could be thrown at the matter at hand.

No explanation for von Neumann’s obsession with mathematics and computation is offered; we are asked to take it as a given that, whatever the consequences, “he wanted to mathematize everything”.
In this way, Labatut gains a couple of advantages.

First, he can write excitedly on a broad range of scientific subject matter in the confidence that no reader will be too invested in the detail.

On the other hand, he can bite the hand that feeds him, by casting von Neumann as a blithely insouciant, “manic” avatar of much that disturbs us most about modernity. The fact that an early computer created according to von Neumann’s specifications was called The Maniac naturally sustains the characterisation.

Little is made of von Neumann’s Jewish background; religion played no part in his upbringing and, apparently, he paid scant attention to the rise of Nazism, even while working in interwar Germany.

Labatut includes a scene in which, on receiving his diagnosis with cancer, von Neumann attempts to put on tefillin, but on his deathbed he chose to hedge his bets by calling for a Catholic priest.

That said, the image of von Neumann as a Jew with “his fingers in so many pies” plays into antisemitic stereotypes that might have warranted further examination.

Von Neumann’s story is preceded in The Maniac by a brief study of the physicist Paul Ehrenfest, a tragic figure who detested von Neumann for championing the “industrialisation of physics”.

The book ends with a singularly tedious account of the Go match between South Korean champion Lee Sedol and AlphaGo, widely recognised as a triumph for the application of AI.

There are lively moments in this book — the physicist Richard Feynman pops up as an engaging narrator and von Neumann’s second wife, Klára Dán, is great fun — but overall, it is a clichéd piece of work, in both thought and style.

It touches on important issues, but interested readers will probably want to go elsewhere, such as to Greg Kohs’s 2017 documentary AlphaGo, a fascinating take on the Sedol-AlphaGo contest.

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