Originality Over Brilliance (Einstein vs. Von Neumann)

“I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Max Planck (Nobel Prize 1918), von Laue (Nobel Prize 1914) and Heisenberg (Nobel Prize 1932). Paul Dirac (Nobel Prize 1933) was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as John von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me.
… But Einstein’s understanding was deeper even than von Neumann’s. His mind was both more penetrating and more original than von Neumann’s. And that is a very remarkable statement. Einstein took an extraordinary pleasure in invention. Two of his greatest inventions are the Special and General Theories of Relativity; and for all of von Neumann’s brilliance, he never produced anything as original.
Eugene Wigner (Nobel Prize Physics 1963)

Imagination rules! Not speed of thought!

Creativity, freedom of thoughtNot genes!

To the question: which philosopher did John follow? 

The general answer is that he was a pragmatist, and that in itself is an indication of an underlying philosophy. 

But from my perspective he followed, or at least considered, one specific philosopher, Goethe

After all, Goethe was a philosopher, among many other professions. We studied Faust in school very thoroughly, both in the original and in Hungarian translation. We discussed it for years and reread it occasionally throughout our respective lifetimes. 

von Neumann died at the age of 53, in 1957, near Princeton, of cancer. As his mind began to falter, he was, by all accounts in terrifying agony, a screaming, uncontrollable terror. As he neared death, sedated. American guards watched his hospital room, wary that he might babble high-level military secrets, but he began to speak in Hungarian, and the guards didn’t understand it. 

His brother was at his side, and John von Neumann, going out of life on this planet, under heavy painkillers, recited Goethe’s Faust from his photographic memory… 

It has been said that von Neumann’s intellect was absolutely unmatched. Von Neumann’s ability to instantaneously perform complex operations in his head stunned other mathematicians. 

“one had the impression of a perfect instrument whose gears were machined to mesh accurately to a thousandth of an inch.”

Eugene Wigner

“Keeping up with him was … impossible. 

The feeling was you were on a tricycle chasing a racing car.”

Israel Halperin (Von Neumann’s doctoral advisor)

“I never could keep up with him”.

Edward Teller

“von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my 3 year old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us. Most people avoid thinking if they can, some of us are addicted to thinking, but von Neumann actually enjoyed thinking, maybe even to the exclusion of everything else.”

Edward Teller

“One of his remarkable abilities was his power of absolute recall. As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how A Tale of Two Cities started. Whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes.”

Herman Goldstine

“I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man” 

-Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe of Cornell University.

A list of Von Neumann’s accomplishments:

Abelian von Neumann algebra

Affiliated operator

Amenable group

Arithmetic logic unit

Artificial viscosity (a numerical technique for simulating shock waves)

Axiom of regularity

Axiom of limitation of size

Backward induction

Blast wave (fluid dynamics)

Bounded set (topological vector space)

Carry-save adder

Cellular automata

Class (set theory)

Decoherence theory (Quantum mechanics)

Computer virus

Commutation theorem

Continuous geometry

Direct integral

Doubly stochastic matrix

Duality Theorem

Density matrix

Durbin–Watson statistic

Game theory

Hilbert’s fifth problem

Hyperfinite type II factor

Ergodic theory


explosive lenses

Lattice theory

Lifting theory

Inner model

Inner model theory

Interior point method

Mutual assured destruction

Merge sort

Middle-square method

Minimax theorem

Monte Carlo method

Normal-form game

Pointless topology

Polarization identity



Quantum mutual information

Radiation implosion

Rank ring

Operator theory

Operation Greenhouse


Software whitening

Standard probability space

Stochastic computing


Von Neumann algebra

Von Neumann architecture

Von Neumann bicommutant theorem

Von Neumann cardinal assignment

Von Neumann cellular automaton

Von Neumann constant (two of them)

Von Neumann interpretation

Von Neumann measurement scheme

Von Neumann Ordinals

Von Neumann universal constructor

Von Neumann entropy

Von Neumann Equation

Von Neumann neighborhood

Von Neumann paradox

Von Neumann regular ring

Von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel set theory

Von Neumann spectral theory

Von Neumann universe

Von Neumann conjecture

Von Neumann’s inequality

Stone–von Neumann theorem

Von Neumann’s trace inequality

Von Neumann stability analysis

Quantum statistical mechanics

Von Neumann extractor

Von Neumann ergodic theorem

Ultrastrong topology

Von Neumann–Morgenstern utility theorem

ZND detonation model

5 thoughts on “Originality Over Brilliance (Einstein vs. Von Neumann)”

    1. Richard Feynman, though certainly not the intellectual powerhouse that von Neumann was, added to the mathematics of quantum mechanics immeasurably. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is perhaps the most brilliant human in the last several hundred years, though he was more of of universal genius, certainly not a specialist. Einstein has more volumes of Goethe in his library than any other intellectual.

      Goethe described a form of scientific investigation that included a more intuitive and comprehensive approach than the Cartesian or Baconian posture that we know today. Darwin benefited from Goethe as well as genius after genius, but his method is a bit more laborious than the current Scientific Method that we are familiar with today.

      Tesla, also a Goethe advocate, could be considered on par with von Neumann.


      1. Von Neumann was a six sigma intellect, ie, six standard deviations above the average or 1 in 100,000,000. There have been other geniuses of that caliber in history like Leibniz, Newton, Archimedes, Gauss and Euler. Von Neumann deserves to be among them.


  1. Einstein’s originality was unmatched in human history: The thing that made Einstein unique is that half his papers started research fields, and he has hundreds of them. It’s jaw-dropping. Second order phase transitions? Einstein 1911. Phonons? Einstein/Debye 1906. Wormholes? Einstein/Rosen 1940-something. Antisymmetric B-field? Einstein 1940s. And that’s not including technology, like no-moving-parts refrigerator? Einstein/Szillard 1940. Diffusion isotope separation? Einstein at unknown point, River meandering? Einstein 1920-something. There are tons more: spin reversal (with DeHaas), Lasers (A/B coefficients), Schrodinger equation (semiclassical version due to Einstein), Quantization (Sommerfeld rule was inspired by Einstein). Etc. Etc. I could go on and on.

    It’s inconcievable that one person could have done so much, it’s superhuman. If you read all his papers, you basically give up on being better, at best, you just struggle to be a tenth as great.There is Einstein and everybody else, I’d pick him as my master physicist…even over the great Isaac Newton (who is a very close second).

    Von Neumann and Ramanajun were biological anomalies. Just freakish genius. But Originality….is different. It’s not computing power; if that were the case Ramanajun, Archimedes, or Von Neumann would be the smartest human beings ever. Originality is creative, fluid, an admixture of both computing power and imagination – that rare space of intuition VERY few human beings have ever occupied. Shakespeare and Einstein, in my humble opinion, are two of the VERY few human beings whom have ever possessed such ability.


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