Story of a genius: award-winning biographer tells sixth-formers about one of the world’s greatest minds

Story of a genius: award-winning biographer tells sixth-formers about one of the world’s greatest minds

Author, scientist and QE parent Dr Ananyo Bhattacharya gave a talk to senior pupils on his book about John von Neumann, the brilliant Hungarian-American polymath who made breakthroughs in fields ranging from nuclear energy to economics.

Dr Bhattacharya’s book, entitled The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann, was named a Financial Times and Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2021.

His lunchtime talk to A-level Mathematics, Physics and Economics students explored how von Neumann’s advances in mathematics 70–80 years ago continue to inform the science of today.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “We are grateful to Dr Bhattacharya, as a QE parent, for coming in to School to share his expertise and to inspire our senior boys. It is great that we can draw upon different constituencies within the Elizabethan community, including parents and alumni, to enhance the educational experience offered here.”

Dr Bhattacharya, whose son, Callistus, is in Year 7, is a science writer who has worked for The Economist and Nature, the weekly multi-disciplinary scientific journal. Prior to that, he worked as a medical researcher at the Burnham Institute in San Diego. He has a degree in Physics from Oxford and a PhD, also in Physics, from Imperial College London.

The subject of his book, von Neumann, was born in 1903 to a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest. A child prodigy, he had published two major mathematical papers by the age of 19.

After an early career in German academia during the late 1920s, he took up an invitation to Princeton University in October 1929, becoming a naturalised citizen of the USA in 1937.

In a life of only 53 years – he died of cancer in February 1957 – he made major contributions in subjects including mathematics, physics, economics, computing and statistics.

During World War II, he worked on the Manhattan Project – the research and development that produced the first nuclear weapons – and after the war, he served on the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

In his talk, Dr Bhattacharya mentioned the Manhattan Project as well as, inter alia, von Neumann’s contributions to set theory, game theory and the development of the first programmable digital computer.

Head of Library Services Jenni Blackford said: “Dr Bhattacharya delivered a friendly, accessible and vastly informative talk about the life and accomplishments of von Neumann.”