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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index V > John von Neumann Quotes

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John von Neumann
(28 Dec 1903 - 8 Feb 1957)

Hungarian-American mathematician who made significant contributions in diverse fields, including quantum physics, logic, meteorology, game theory and computer science.

Science Quotes by John von Neumann (17 quotes)

Neumann, to a physicist seeking help with a difficult problem: Simple. This can be solved by using the method of characteristics.
Physicist: I'm afraid I don’t understand the method of characteristics.
Neumann: In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
— John von Neumann
Attributed, as related by Dr. Felix Smith (Head of Molecular Physics, Stanford Research Institute) to author Gary Zukav, who quoted it in The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1979, 2001), 208, footnote. The physicist (a friend of Dr. Smith) worked at Los Alamos after WW II. It should be noted that although the author uses quotation marks around the spoken remarks, that they represent the author's memory of Dr. Smith's recollection, who heard it from the physicist. Therefore the fourth-hand wording is very likely not verbatim. Webmaster finds Zukav's book seems to be the only source for this quote.
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A large part of mathematics which becomes useful developed with absolutely no desire to be useful, and in a situation where nobody could possibly know in what area it would become useful; and there were no general indications that it ever would be so.
— John von Neumann
From Address (1954) to Princeton Alumni, 'The Role of Mathematics in the Sciences and in Society', published in A.H. Taub (ed.), John von Neumann: Collected Works (1963), Vol. 6, 489. As quoted and cited in Rosemary Schmalz,Out of the Mouths of Mathematicians: A Quotation Book for Philomaths (1993), 123.
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Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in the state of sin. For, as has been pointed out several times, there is no such thing as a random number—there are only methods to produce random numbers, and a strict arithmetic procedure of course is not such a method.
— John von Neumann
In paper delivered at a symposium on the Monte Carlo method. 'Various Techniques Used in Connection with Random Digits', Journal of Research of the National Bureau of Standards, Appl. Math. Series, Vol. 3 (1951), 3, 36. Reprinted in John von Neumann: Collected Works (1963), Vol. 5, 700. Also often seen misquoted (?) as “Anyone who attempts to generate random numbers by deterministic means is, of course, living in a state of sin.”
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By and large it is uniformly true in mathematics that there is a time lapse between a mathematical discovery and the moment when it is useful; and that this lapse of time can be anything from 30 to 100 years, in some cases even more.
— John von Neumann
From Address (1954) to Princeton Alumni, 'The Role of Mathematics in the Sciences and in Society', published in A.H. Taub (ed.), John von Neumann: Collected Works (1963), Vol. 6, 489. As quoted and cited in Rosemary Schmalz,Out of the Mouths of Mathematicians: A Quotation Book for Philomaths (1993), 123.
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I think that it is a relatively good approximation to truth—which is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations—that mathematical ideas originate in empirics.
— John von Neumann
From 'The Mathematician', collected in James Roy Newman (ed.), The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 4, 2063.
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If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.
— John von Neumann
In speech to first national meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery (1947), as quoted in Franz L. Alt, 'Archaeology of computers: Reminiscences, 1945-1947', Communications of the ACM (Jul 1972), 15, No. 7, 694.
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In any conceivable method ever invented by man, an automaton which produces an object by copying a pattern, will go first from the pattern to a description to the object. It first abstracts what the thing is like, and then carries it out. It’s therefore simpler not to extract from a real object its definition, but to start from the definition.
— John von Neumann
From lecture series on self-replicating machines at the University of Illinois, Lecture 5 (Dec 1949), 'Re-evaluation of the Problems of Complicated Automata—Problems of Hierarchy and Evolution', Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata (1966).
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It is exceptional that one should be able to acquire the understanding of a process without having previously acquired a deep familiarity with running it, with using it, before one has assimilated it in an instinctive and empirical way. Thus any discussion of the nature of intellectual effort in any field is difficult, unless it presupposes an easy, routine familiarity with that field. In mathematics this limitation becomes very severe.
— John von Neumann
In 'The Mathematician', Works of the Mind (1947), 1, No. 1. Collected in James Roy Newman (ed.), The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 4, 2053.
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It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.
— John von Neumann
As quoted, without source by Eugene Wigner in 'John von Neumann (1903-1957)', Year Book of the American Philosophical Society: Biographical Memoirs (1958), 153. Collected in Eugene P. Wigner, The Collected Works of Eugene Paul Wigner: Historical, Philosophical, and Socio-Political Papers. Historical and Biographical Reflections and Syntheses (2013), 130.
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Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental—indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time. … The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel's achievement.
— John von Neumann
From remarks at the Presentation (Mar 1951) of the Albert Einstein Award to Dr. Gödel, as quoted in 'Tribute to Dr. Gödel', in Jack J. Bulloff, ‎Thomas C. Holyok (eds.), Foundations of Mathematics: Symposium Papers Commemorating the Sixtieth Birthday of Kurt Gödel (1969), ix. https://books.google.com/books?id=irZLAAAAMAAJ Kurt Gödel, ‎Jack J. Bulloff, ‎Thomas C. Holyoke - 1969 -
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The calculus was the first achievement of modern mathematics and it is difficult to overestimate its importance. I think it defines more unequivocally than anything else the inception of modern mathematics; and the system of mathematical analysis, which is its logical development, still constitutes the greatest technical advance in exact thinking.
— John von Neumann
In 'The Mathematician', Works of the Mind (1947), 1, No. 1. Collected in James Roy Newman (ed.), The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 4, 2055.
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The other line of argument, which leads to the opposite conclusion, arises from looking at artificial automata. Everyone knows that a machine tool is more complicated than the elements which can be made with it, and that, generally speaking, an automaton A, which can make an automaton B, must contain a complete description of B, and also rules on how to behave while effecting the synthesis. So, one gets a very strong impression that complication, or productive potentiality in an organization, is degenerative, that an organization which synthesizes something is necessarily more complicated, of a higher order, than the organization it synthesizes. This conclusion, arrived at by considering artificial automaton, is clearly opposite to our early conclusion, arrived at by considering living organisms.
— John von Neumann
From lecture series on self-replicating machines at the University of Illinois, Lecture 5 (Dec 1949), 'Re-evaluation of the Problems of Complicated Automata—Problems of Hierarchy and Evolution', Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata (1966).
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The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work—that is, correctly to describe phenomena from a reasonably wide area. Furthermore, it must satisfy certain esthetic criteria—that is, in relation to how much it describes, it must be rather simple.
— John von Neumann
From 'Method in the Physical Sciences', in John von Neumann and L. Leary (ed.), The Unity of Knowledge (1955), 158. Reprinted in John Von Neumann, F. Bródy (ed.) and Tibor Vámos (ed.), The Neumann Compendium (2000), 628.
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What is important is the gradual development of a theory, based on a careful analysis of the ... facts. ... Its first applications are necessarily to elementary problems where the result has never been in doubt and no theory is actually required. At this early stage the application serves to corroborate the theory. The next stage develops when the theory is applied to somewhat more complicated situations in which it may already lead to a certain extent beyond the obvious and familiar. Here theory and application corroborate each other mutually. Beyond lies the field of real success: genuine prediction by theory. It is well known that all mathematized sciences have gone through these successive stages of evolution.
— John von Neumann
'Formulation of the Economic Problem' in Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1964), 8. Reprinted in John Von Neumann, F. Bródy (ed.) and Tibor Vámos (ed.), The Neumann Compendium (2000), 416.
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When we talk mathematics, we may be discussing a secondary language built on the primary language of the nervous system.
— John von Neumann
As quoted in John C. Oxtoby and B. J. Pettis (eds.), 'John von Neumann, 1903-1957', Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society (May 1958), 64, No. 3, Part 2, 128.
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You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one really knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.
— John von Neumann
From the recollection of Claude Shannon given in discussion with Myron Tribus (Apr 1961) about the reason Shannon chose the word “entropy” for his information function (first used by Shannon in a 1945 memorandum at Bell Labs). The suggestion from Neumann to use “entropy” dates back to a Neumann-Shannon conversation c.1940. Shannon’s recollection of the Neumann’s recommendation was quoted as recollected by Tribus in Myron Tribus and Edward C. McIrving, 'Energy and Information', Scientific American (1971), 225, 179-88.
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~~[No source found]~~ There’s no sense in being precise when you don't even know what you're talking about.
— John von Neumann
Webmaster has looked for, but so far has been unable to find, a primary source with this wording. Please help if you can. Meanwhile it is included here to note its status.
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Quotes by others about John von Neumann (6)

The spectacular thing about Johnny [von Neumann] was not his power as a mathematician, which was great, or his insight and his clarity, but his rapidity; he was very, very fast. And like the modern computer, which no longer bothers to retrieve the logarithm of 11 from its memory (but, instead, computes the logarithm of 11 each time it is needed), Johnny didn’t bother to remember things. He computed them. You asked him a question, and if he didn’t know the answer, he thought for three seconds and would produce and answer.
From interview with Donald J. Albers. In John H. Ewing and Frederick W. Gehring, Paul Halmos Celebrating 50 Years of Mathematics (1991), 9.
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There was a seminar for advanced students in Zürich that I was teaching and von Neumann was in the class. I came to a certain theorem, and I said it is not proved and it may be difficult. Von Neumann didn’t say anything but after five minutes he raised his hand. When I called on him he went to the blackboard and proceeded to write down the proof. After that I was afraid of von Neumann.
In George Pólya and Gerald L. Alexanderson (ed.) The Pólya Picture Album: Encounters of a Mathematician (1987), 154. Also footnoted in Matti Tedre, The Development of Computer Science: a Sociocultural Perspective (2006), 198, cited as from How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method (1957), xv.
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Running overtime is the one unforgivable error a lecturer can make. After fifty minutes (one microcentury as von Neumann used to say) everybody's attention will turn elsewhere.
In 'Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught', Indiscrete Thoughts (2008), 197.
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Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since.
In ‎'Los Alamos From Below', “Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character (1997, 2010), 132, a collection of stories told to Ralph Leighton and edited by Edward Hutchings.
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In the summer of 1937, … I told Banach about an expression Johnny [von Neumann] had once used in conversation with me in Princeton before stating some non-Jewish mathematician’s result, “Die Goim haben den folgendenSatzbewiesen” (The goys have proved the following theorem). Banach, who was pure goy, thought it was one of the funniest sayings he had ever heard. He was enchanted by its implication that if the goys could do it, Johnny and I ought to be able to do it better. Johnny did not invent this joke, but he liked it and we started using it.
In Adventures of a Mathematician (1976, 1991), 107. Von Neumann, who was raised in Budapest by a Jewish family, knew the Yiddish word “goy” was equivalent to “gentile” or a non-Jew. Stefan Banach, a Polish mathematician, was raised in a Catholic family, hence “pure goy”. Ulam thus gives us the saying so often elsewhere seen attributed to von Neumann without the context: “The goys have proved the following theorem.” It is seen anecdotally as stated by von Neumann to begin a classroom lecture.
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I asked Fermi whether he was not impressed by the agreement between our calculated numbers and his measured numbers. He replied, “How many arbitrary parameters did you use for your calculations?" I thought for a moment about our cut-off procedures and said, “Four." He said, “I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.” With that, the conversation was over.
As given in 'A Meeting with Enrico Fermi', Nature (22 Jan 2004), 427, 297. As quoted in Steven A. Frank, Dynamics of Cancer: Incidence, Inheritance, and Evolution (2007), 87. Von Neumann meant nobody need be impressed when a complex model fits a data set well, because if manipulated with enough flexible parameters, any data set can be fitted to an incorrect model, even one that plots a curve on a graph shaped like an elephant!
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See also:
  • 28 Dec - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Neumann's birth.
  • John von Neumann - context of quote In mathematics you don't understand things. - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • John von Neumann - context of quote In mathematics you don't understand things. - Large image (800 x 600 px)
  • John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered..., by Norman MacRae. - book suggestion.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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