Field of Expertise

John von Neumann, one of the original six mathematics professors at the Institute for Advanced Study, left an indelible mark on the fields of mathematics, quantum theory, nuclear physics, and computer science. A pioneer of the field of Game Theory, Dr. von Neumann co-authored the book, THEORY OF GAMES AND ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR (1944), with his Princeton colleague, economist Oskar Morgenstern. The book is considered the seminal work in the field of Game Theory. Dr. von Neumann was also a pioneer of modern computing, devising the computer infrastructure that is now known as the "von Neumann Architecture." He perceived that a computer's program and the data that it is processing do not have to be fed into the machine while the computer is running, but rather can be stored in the computer's memory. This helped paved the way for the modern computing era.

Dr. von Neumann was also very influential in the field of nuclear physics. While working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Dr. von Neumann was a member of the team that developed modern mathematical modeling. This allowed scientists to predict how complex reactions would perform without performing a physical test. He also refined the technique for the implosion of plutonium by developing the "implosion lens" that would correctly compress plutonium.

As an enormous contributor to pure and applied mathematics, Dr. von Neumann gained notoriety early in his life for his work in set theory, algebra, and quantum mechanics. At the age of 20, he published the definition of ordinal numbers that is still used today. He also developed the "theory of automata," which compared the computing abilities of a machine with that of a human brain.

Educational Background

John von Neumann was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1903. He attended the University of Berlin (1921-1923) in a non-degree chemistry program in order to gain acceptance into the chemical engineering program at the prestigious Eidgennossische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, where he received a degree in 1926. The same year, he received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Budapest. Von Neumann lectured as a professor at the University of Berlin from 1926 to 1929. From 1930 to 1933, he was a professor of quantum theory at Princeton University. In 1933 he became one of the original six mathematics professors at the newly founded Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, a position he retained for the remainder of his life.


John von Neumann received two presidential awards, the Medal of Merit (1947) and the Medal of Freedom (1956). He also received the Albert Einstein Commemorative Award (1956) and the Enrico Fermi Award (1956). He was Colloquium Lecturer of the American Mathematical Society in 1937 and received its B˘cher Prize. He held the Gibbs Lectureship of the American Mathematical Society in 1947 and was President of the Society (1951-53). Dr. von Neumann was appointed by President Eisenhower to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1955. He was a co-author of the book THEORY OF GAMES AND ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR (1944) with Oskar Morgenstern, the first contemporary book on the subject of Game Theory. In 1990, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) established the IEEE John Von Neumann Medal. It is an annual award that is presented "for outstanding achievements in computer-related science and technology."


The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive - John von Neumann

The History of Economic Thought Web site - John von Neumann's Biography

The National Academies - John von Neumann


John von Neumann, Orskar Morganstern, THEORIES OF GAMES AND ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR. Princeton University Press


John von Neumann, THE COMPUTER AND THE BRAIN. Yale University Press

Israel Halperin, and John von Neumann, CONTINUOUS GEOMETRY. Princeton University Press

© 2003 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

close window
Thirteen/WNET Big Ideas