“The Most Powerful Brain”: Peter Lax on the Life and Genius of John von Neumann

Peter Lax

John von Neumann (1903–1957) was a brilliant mathematician and pioneer of the modern computer. His groundbreaking work Theory of Games and Economic Behavior co-authored with Oskar Morgenstern has become a classic work upon which modern-day game theory is based.

Peter D. Lax is Professor of Mathematics at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. He is the recipient of the 2005 Abel Prize of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

Q: You are one of the very few people today who knew John von Neumann on a personal and professional level. How did the two of you first meet?

A: I arrived with my family in the US in December '41; I was 15 years old. I had already shown interest and talent by solving elementary but difficult mathematical problems. I have brought with me letters of introduction to von Neumann from my tutors Rozsa Peter and Denes Konig, asking him to pay attention to my mathematical development. Von Neumann suggested that after completing my high-school education I study at Columbia. I received far better advice from the distinguished mathematician Szego (Mrs. Szego was a cousin of my mother) that I study at NYU with Richard Courant, who is very good at looking after young people. This was the best advice I ever got.

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