John von Neumann, the mathematician who designed modern computers | Coffee and theories | Sciences

The development of computing as we understand it today was made possible by the contributions of some of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century, including Alan Turing and John von Neumann. The latter proposed a way to build computers capable of performing various kinds of functions; Like ours, where we just have to install different software for them to perform new tasks.

Born in Budapest in 1903, von Neumann was distinguished from his youth for his mathematical abilities and remarkable photographic memory: he was able to read books he had read years before. He received his doctorate in mathematics at the age of 23 and was one of the first professors at the prestigious Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in the United States. He is known for his developments in many areas of science, such as computing, quantum physics, analysis, or game theory. During World War II, he collaborated on the Manhattan Project.

His contribution to computing is based on the ideas of Alan Turing. In 1936, Turing created a mathematical object, known as the Turing machine, which formalized the concept of an algorithm or, in other words, a computer program. Turing introduced the concept of a general Turing machine, capable of reproducing any algorithm, as long as the instructions are entered correctly. Its actual build was called a “general purpose” computer. This concept refers to what we now understand as a programmable computer.

The first general-purpose computer — ENIAC (Numeral Numerical Integrator and Computer) — was built by engineers John Brebert Eckert and John William Mauchly in 1945. This computer could, practically, reproduce any algorithm as long as the instructions were configured by rewiring.. right. This was a long and tedious process, severely limited by the number of cables and thus the size of the computer itself.

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Hungarian-born American mathematician John von Neumann (1903-1957) testifying before the US Congressional Atomic Energy Committee in 1955
Hungarian-born American mathematician John von Neumann (1903-1957) testifying before the US Congressional Atomic Energy Committee in 1955Stock montage (Getty Images)

Von Neumann was the person who managed to design a computer to which instructions could be entered electronically. In its prototype, it was enough to enter instructions through a magnetic tape reader recorder. Today the proposed computer architecture is known as the Von Neumann architecture. In 1945, von Neumann circulated a draft detailing how to build computers using this architecture, which were called general-purpose computers with “program storage capability”. Today, all modern computers are of this type.

The key to Von Neumann’s architecture was inspired by Turing’s universal machine: storing instructions in a computer’s own memory. Von Neumann designed his computer with a structure divided into three large parts, the CPU (central processing unit), memory, and input and output devices (such as the keyboard and monitor).

The CPU was responsible for reading and modifying the contents of electronic memory and it did so by following instructions in a portion of the computer’s memory. In addition, it was possible to modify the memory, for example, by entering data with the keyboard, thus modifying the operating instructions of the CPU and, accordingly, the function performed by the computer. Von Neumann, together with Prepert Eckert and Mauchly, built the first general-purpose computer capable of storing programs – EDVAC (Electronic Automatic Variable Calculator initials) – at the University of Pennsylvania (USA).

An SUV for science, economics and psychology

Von Neumann’s contributions to computing did not end here. He also invented a mathematical organism called the cellular human. These dynamical systems also bear some resemblance to Turing machines, and were well suited for modeling natural systems in which many objects interact with each other. Not only did von Neumann introduce them, but he also designed the first examples of automatic self-replicating, capable of replicating an elementary object indefinitely by following the simple rules of evolution. These ideas were developed by mathematician John Conway, and inspired the famous Game of Life, Example of the Cellular Human.

Von Neumann is also one of the founders of the field known as game theory, which mathematically studies the rational behavior of individuals in the face of conflict with various possible strategies. This theory has applications in many other areas of knowledge, particularly in economics and psychology. Unfortunately, this genius of mathematics died prematurely at the age of 53. She was diagnosed with cancer, possibly due to radiation received during nuclear tests at the Manhattan Project.

Robert Cardona He is a postdoctoral researcher at ICMAT And in University Politècnica de Catalunya.

Coffee and theories is a section dedicated to mathematics and the environment in which it was created, coordinated by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), in which researchers and members of the center describe the latest developments in this discipline, share points of convergence between mathematics and other social and cultural expressions and remember those who marked their development and knew how to turn coffee into theories . The name evokes Hungarian mathematician Alfred Rennie’s definition: “A mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems.”

Edition and format: Ágata A. Timón G Longoria (ICMAT).

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