“Other mathematicians prove what they can, von Neumann proves what he wants.”

—Rózsa Péter

I’ve always been interested in the feats of geniuses. I remember in middle school rewatching a 60 minutes piece about Magnus Carlson’s ferocious intellect perhaps a dozen times. *Ender’s Game*, about a young boy who is quite brilliant, was my favorite book growing up. Just as there is something impressive about watching a sublime waterfall or listening to a masterful orchestra, there is something impressive about observing the most spectacular manifestations of the human intellect. Reading some authors, one gets the sense that their intellect exudes genuine force, as if one reading them is playing mental chess against a grandmaster and losing badly; Parfit is perhaps a good example of someone for whom that is the case. Reading Parfit, I get the sense that I’m reading someone far more brilliant than I am, someone whose intelligence and creativity knows of little bound, who is thinking several levels above myself. A passage from Yudkowsky conveys the sentiment well:

I'd enjoyed math proofs before I encountered Jaynes. But E.T. Jaynes was the first time I picked up a sense of

formidabilityfrom mathematical arguments. Maybe because Jaynes was lining up "paradoxes" that had been used to object to Bayesianism, and then blasting them to pieces with overwhelming firepower—power being used to overcome others. Or maybe the sense of formidability came from Jaynes not treating his math as a game of aesthetics; Jaynescaredabout probability theory, it was bound up with other considerations that mattered, to him and to me too.For whatever reason, the sense I get of Jaynes is one of terrifying swift perfection—something that would arrive at the correct answer by the shortest possible route, tearing all surrounding mistakes to shreds in the same motion. Of course, when you write a book, you get a chance to show only your best side. But still.

There are people like this, for whom the word genius is appropriate. Then, far enough above them to sit on the right side of the platonic form of cleverness, is von Neumann. Ananyo Bhattacharya’s excellent book *The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann *helps convey* *the brilliance of von Neumann, yet as one reads it, one gets the sense that they are not fully grasping the extent of his intellect. Just as one can only grok at the formidable size of the number googolplex, so too can they only grasp a scintilla of Von Neumann’s intellect.

Kurt Gödel revolutionized formal logic, inventing the famous incompleteness theorem. Einstein discovered special relativity, bringing about a radical new paradigm of physics; his influence in the field ranks next to Newton. Yet just as the book is starting, Bhattacharya informs us that those who knew all three men were in unambiguous agreement that of the three, Von Neumann had the sharpest intellect.

You have to be pretty damn smart for everyone to agree that you’re * smarter than Einstein*.

Bhattacharya impressively conveys anecdotes that show just how smart Von Neumann was. For example:

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