Book Review: The Man From The Future
John von Neumann invented the digital computer. The fields of game theory and cellular automata. Important pieces of modern economics, set theory, and particle physics. A substantial part of the technology behind the atom and hydrogen bombs. Several whole fields of mathematics I hadn’t previously heard of, like “operator algebras”, “continuous geometry”, and “ergodic theory”.
The Man From The Future, by Ananyo Bhattacharya, touches on all these things. But you don’t read a von Neumann biography to learn more about the invention of ergodic theory. You read it to gawk at an extreme human specimen, maybe the smartest man who ever lived.
By age 6, he could multiply eight-digit numbers in his head. At the same age, he spoke conversational ancient Greek; later, he would add Latin, French, German, English, and Yiddish (sometimes he joked about also speaking Spanish, but he would just put "el" before English words and add -o to the end) . Rumor had it he memorized everything he ever read. A fellow mathematician once tried to test this by asking him to recite Tale Of Two Cities, and reported that “he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes”.
A group of scientists encountered a problem that the computers of the day couldn’t handle, and asked von Neumann for advice on designing a new generation of computers that was up to the task. But:
When the presentation was completed, he scribbled on a pad, stared so blankly that a RAND scientist later said he looked as if “his mind had slipped his face out of gear”, then said “Gentlemen, you do not need the computer. I have the answer.” While the scientists sat in stunned silence, Von Neumann reeled off the various steps which would provide the solution to the problem.
Do these sound a little too much like urban legends? The Tale Of Two Cities story comes straight from the mathematician involved - von Neumann’s friend Herman Goldstine, writing about his experience in The Computer From Pascal to von Neumann. The computer anecdote is of less certain provenance, quoted without attribution in a 1957 obituary in Life. But this is part of the fun of reading von Neumann biographies: figuring out what one can or can’t believe about a figure of such mythic proportions.
This is not really what Bhattacharya is here for. He does not entirely resist gawking. But he is at least as interested in giving us a tour of early 20th century mathematics, framed by the life of its most brilliant practitioner. The book devotes more pages to set theory than to von Neumann’s childhood, and spends more time on von Neumann’s formalization of quantum mechanics than on his first marriage (to be fair, so did von Neumann - hence the divorce).
Still, for those of us who never made their high school math tutors cry with joy at ever having met them (another von Neumann story, this one well-attested), the man himself is more of a draw than his ergodic theory. And there’s enough in The Man From The Future - and in some of the few hundred references it cites - to start to get a coherent picture.
Where Did Von Neumann Even Come From?
The canonical answer is “Mars”.
Technically he was born in Hungary. But we’ve already been through this. A few years ago I wrote about “The Martians” - a sudden spurt of Hungarian supergeniuses born around 1900. People low-key noticed this phenomenon almost as soon as it started, but it really became obvious during the Manhattan Project, when several of the project’s leading lights (including von Neumann) reconnected in the deserts of New Mexico c. 1940 and realized they’d gone to high school together in Budapest. Leo Szilard joked that “Hungary” was a front for Martian spies, and the group has been called “Martians” ever since..
In my post, I was able to track down a few clues to the mystery. All of the Martians were Jewish, which linked the puzzle to the general puzzle of Jewish overachievement (for example, 36% of US Nobel Prize winners are Jews, compared to only 2% of the US population). Greg Cochran and others suggest a genetic explanation, with Daron Acemoglu and others suggesting a cultural/historical one; unsurprisingly, I side with Cochran. Granting that this is a Jewish phenomenon, it’s not too hard to explain why it happened at the turn of the century in particular - too long before then, and anti-Semitism prevented European Jews from getting a good education; too long after then, and they all died in the Holocaust.
That still leaves one mystery: why Hungary? There were Jews all over Europe. Although most of the weird overachievement comes from Ashkenazi Jews in particular - those from Eastern Europe - there were Ashkenazim in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics, etc. So why Hungary?
In the last post, I came up with a few theories. Places too far east (eg Russia) had more anti-Semitism and less education. And the rest of Central Europe actually did have have lots of Jewish or half-Jewish geniuses during this period - Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Sigmund Freud, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example.
Still, I wasn’t too happy with this explanation. Many of the Eastern European Jews eventually fled to America, where there was less anti-Semitism and they could get good educations. They did very well for themselves - see the Nobel Prize statistic above. But the Manhattan Project, which you would expect to draw disproportionately from Americans, was still disproportionately Hungarian. There are now 15x more Jews in the US than in early 1900s Hungary, but we still admire and envy those few 1900s Hungarian supergeniuses as a breed apart. Why? I couldn’t find a satisfying explanation.
Bhattacharya quotes von Neumann’s own explanation:
[He] attributed his generation's success to "a coincidence of some cultural factors" that produced "a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or face extinction. In other words, [the Jews’] recognition that the tolerant climate of Hungary might change overnight propelled some to preternatural efforts to succeed.
I know you’re the smartest person in the world, but come on. Hungarian Jews did especially well because they felt like terrified outsiders who could be exterminated at any moment? That’s all Jews everywhere!
This bothered me enough that I turned to a second von Neumann biography, Norman MacRae’s John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered The Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, And Much More. I was delighted to find that MacRae had a completely straightforward explanation I had never heard before.
In 1870-1914 Budapest and New York were the two cities in the world to which the brightest Jews seemed wisest to immigrate. In them — but in few other places — an intelligent Jew of the 1890s could rise in income and status nearly to the level permitted by his ability. In Budapest Jews quickly became the professional (doctor and lawyer) as well as merchant class […]
As a consequence, there was a flood of Jewish immigration into Hungary in the 1880s and 1890s as there was simultaneously into New York.
By the beginning of the twentieth century towns such as Pecs (in which Max Neumann was born), on one of the main immigration routes for Jews into Hungary, were as much as 40% Jewish. Even Budapest, with its swelling Magyar bureaucracy, was more than one-fourth Jewish. Of Hungary’s total population of over nineteen million, only 5% were Jewish, but that was because there were few Jews in the rural areas. In the towns the Hungarian Jews had come to constitute an important middle and upper middle class — a distinction toward which the nobility still evinced no interest and the peasantry no aspirations. […]
One can see why an intelligent Jew in 1870-1910 could well pick Budapest rather than entry through Ellis Island into America. Old Budapest at the turn of the century was a more sophisticated place than East Side New York. Budapest was creating the best high schools in the world, which New York was not. In Budapest immigrating Jews would soon employ domestic servants, which in New York they would not. They would be able to create an amusing dinner-table culture. There was no need of a long sea voyage to get to Budapest from the ghettos and pogroms of czarist Russia — or from Jews’ still-inferior citizenship in imperial Germany and even Dreyfus-era France.
To America, after sea voyages became no longer frightening in the 1890s, fares suddenly became very cheap, but for the lowest classes only. The price wars between steamship companies in the 1890s were like those between airlines eighty years later: lots of bargain offers for the masses but not for the business classes. In these price wars the Hamburg-New York steerage steamship fare in the 1890s was halved from $20 to $10, but nonsteerage fares remained expensive, especially on unsinkable ships like the Titanic. More steerage-class Jewish families settled on New York, and more upper-class strivers on Budapest. In ideal high school circumstances, the latter bred the generation of geniuses.
MacRae’s thesis is that, of the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe, the upper classes disproportionately migrated to Budapest, and the lower classes to New York. This fits with my findings in Contra Smith On Selective Jewish Immigration, where I argued that (contra Noah Smith’s claim that US Jewish achievement might be due to selective immigration) everyone at the time agreed that it was mostly the poorest and least successful Eastern European Jews who came to the US. From a paper I quoted there, describing a first-generation Jewish-American immigrant:
He recalls that as a young boy in Vaslui, Romania, he had the impression that America was a place for those who had gone into bankruptcy, for deserting soldiers, absconding husbands and the like - "an exile which men fled to only in preference to going to prison". Ravage's parents relinquished him [ie let him immigrate], albeit reluctantly, because their once middle-class standing had eroded to something resembling genteel poverty. His father still made an effort to send his boy on his way in some kind of self-respecting style, to keep up appearances, although it took the sale of the family cow to do so.
Lest accounts by Ravage and other memoirists be dismissed as suspect late reconstructions, it is instructive to compare very similar accounts reported in real-time proximity to the events by disinterested sources, which tend to corroborate memoiristic accounts. One such example occurs in a 1905 study conducted by Emily Greene Balch, the American ethnographer, who did fieldwork in the Slovakian area of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Balch noted that the first Jew to emigrate from a town she visited was a Jewish cloth merchant who had gone bankrupt. Likewise, in a social survey of a shtetl in the Kiev Province (Ukraine), we read of an elderly storekeeper, once quite well off, reduced to a hole-in-the-wall shop, selling goods on consignment for a larger firm. Apart from two spinster daughters who helped out by sewing linens, all this man's children and their families (twenty-five people in all) had left for America within the space of six years.
So the most successful Jews went to Budapest, and the poorest to America. If past success correlates with future success (cf. Plomin, Clark, etc), we would expect Budapest to continue to produce more talent.
I think this clears up my remaining confusion around the Martians. For whatever reason, Eastern European Jews of the 19th century were unusually bright. The very brightest of this unusual group moved to Budapest, interbred with each other, and had one generation of totally unprecedentedly brilliant children before being wiped out. Everything about the Holocaust is so tragic that it’s hard to make it any worse, but credit to MacRae for his attempt.
What Was Von Neumann’s Education Like?
My wife and I are trying to conceive, and I found myself with a bit of an agenda when reading The Man From The Future’s early chapters. Was there anything special about von Neumann’s early years or education that helped him rise above his fellow Martians? What can interested parents do to improve their kid’s chances of becoming the world’s smartest person?
John’s education started with ten years of seemingly haphazard home schooling; there was no tradition of organized primary schools at the time. Still, he was far from under-resourced during this time; his cosmpolitan governesses taught him every major European language, and he had access to his father’s spectacular library (this may have been when he memorized a 44-volume German-language history of the world, which he would later freak people out by quoting during historical discussions).
The family patriarch was Max von Neumann, an extraordinarily successful lawyer - he made so much money that the Emperor of Austria-Hungary ennobled him for service to the national economy. Every night, Max would gather John and his two brothers around the dinner table. First, he would discuss his own day - the cases he had argued, the financial deals he had negotiated., any problems that had been on his mind. Then the children would present on what they had been reading about. The whole von Neumann family - father Max, mother Margit, and the three sons - would have protracted arguments on Henrich Heine’s poetry, or the trajectory of anti-Semitism in Europe, or the paradoxes of God’s omnipotence. Sometimes leading intellectuals would attend and join in, lured by Max’s continually growing wealth and reputation. One frequent guest was Rudolf Ortvay, director of Budapest’s Theoretical Physics Institute. Another was Sandor Ferenczi, a student of Sigmund Freud working on bringing the recently-founded psychoanalytic movement to Hungary. John’s brother Nicholas wrote an account of these sessions, including slightly strained accounts of how they might have influenced John’s future development. For example, one of Max’s most important deals was buying an automated loom company; as a result, the whole family picked up expertise in loom technology. The looms of the time were controlled by inserting punch cards, later to become a standard in digital computing (though not AFAICT through von Neumann’s influence in particular).
At age 11, John went to high school at Budapest’s Fasori Gymnasium. This school has since attracted historical attention for the number of geniuses it produced; along with von Neumann and fellow Manhattan Project physicists Wigner and Teller, its alumni included Nobel-winning economist John Harsanyi and poet George Faludy. The faculty, too, were top-notch: young John’s math teacher was Laszlo Ratz, later to be memorialized by the Laszlo Ratz Prize given yearly for excellence in math education. But despite this enviable environment, it is unclear how much attention John ever paid in school. His brother writes about “frequent complaints of his high school teachers to the effect that when he was asked what the assignment was for today, he did not know; but he then participated in discussions with full competence and knowledge of the subject." Even Ratz was not fully confident in his ability to teach von Neumann, and eventually recommended a private tutor (according to MacRae, the tutor - Gabor Szego - would later become “one of the half dozen most distinguished Hungarian mathematicians of the twentieth century” and end up as chairman of the math department at Stanford).
Throughout all this excellence, Bhattacharya keeps coming back to the theme of precariousness. Max von Neumann didn’t teach his kids five languages just because he wanted them to be sophisticated. He was preparing for them to have to flee Hungary in a hurry. This proved prescient; when John was fifteen, Communists took over Hungary, targeting rich families like the von Neumanns. A few months later, counterrevolutionaries defeated the Communists - then massacred thousands of Jews, who they suspected of collaborating. The von Neumanns survived by fleeing the country at opportune times, and maybe by being too rich to be credibly suspected of communist sympathies. But John’s “feeling of extreme insecurity…and…necessity to produce the unusual or face extinction” certainly wasn’t without basis. This was, perhaps, an education of a different sort.
So what’s the recipe for giving your children a von Neumann-level intellect? I can make four strong recommendations:
Be a Hungarian Jew
Be very, very, very rich, so rich that you get a noble title for it, and fill your home with multilingual governesses and top intellectuals and tutors.
Suffer violent upheaval - but not so much that you stop being very, very, very, rich.
Send your child to the Fasori Gymnasium, 17 Varosligeti Fasor, Budapest, Hungary - already accepting applications for the 2022-23 academic year!
What about those of us who, through poor planning and suboptimal life choices, have failed to do any of these in time? Here I am less sure. But I find myself charmed by the unstructured nature of John’s first ten years, and by Max’s nightly debates over the dinner table.
Was Von Neumann A Nerd?
No. You might expect someone who singlehandedly invented several fields of math to be at least a little aspie, but von Neumann defies the stereotypes. He loved parties, beautiful women, and fast cars. Especially the fast cars. According to Bhattacharya:
Von Neumann loved driving very much but had never passed a test. At [his wife] Mariette’s suggestion, he bribed a driving examiner. This did nothing to improve his driving. He sped along crowded roads as if they were many-body problems to be negotiated by calculating the best route through on the fly. He often failed, and an intersection in Princeton was soon christened “Von Neumann Corner” on account of the many accidents he had there. Bored on open roads, he slowed down. When conversation faltered, he would sing; swaying and rocking the streeting wheel from side to side with him. The couple would buy a new car every year, usually because von Neumann had totalled the previous one. His vehicle of choice was a Cadillac, ‘because’, he explained ‘no one would sell me a tank’. Miraculously, he escaped largely unscathed from these smash-ups, often returning with the unlikeliest of explanations. "I was proceeding down the road,” begins one fabulous excuse. “The trees on the right were passing me in orderly fashion at 60 miles an hour. Suddenly one of them stepped in my path. Boom!”
The Man From The Future avoids mentioning a rumor, spotted on Wikipedia, that part of von Neumann’s problem was a habit of reading books while driving.
Although John could get lost in thought, he was far from demanding perfect silence. He reported doing his best work in chaotic environments, and at Princeton “he received complaints for regularly playing extremely loud German march music on his phonograph, which distracted those in neighboring offices, including Albert Einstein, from their work”.
Most surprising, at least to me, John von Neumann was reportedly quite fun to be around - the life of the party. He used his prodigious memory not just for mathematical theorems but for an almost limitless amount of jokes and gossip. You can find a list of his favorite jokes in his brother’s biography. Here’s one:
Berlin street scene. World War I: man at corner yelling repeatedly: “The Kaiser is an idiot!” Out of nowhere two police agents appear and arrest him for high treason. “But I was referring to the Austrian Kaiser, not to our Kaiser.” “You can't fool us! We know who the idiot is.”
Was Von Neumann A Psychopath?
Granting that von Neumann was not a nerd, was he a psychopath? This has been a matter of more debate. His detractors called him “cold”, “calculating”, and “ruthless”, and pointed out that his game theory work, while brilliant, tended to focus on the most cutthroat scenarios (it was he who invented the term “zero-sum game”). While some of his Manhattan Project collaborators came to regret or at least agonize over their role in inventing the Bomb, von Neumann was disinclined to waste time questioning past decisions. Instead, he goaded the government to get to work building bigger, deadlier hydrogen bombs before the Russians managed the same.
His most controversial opinion was urging an immediate pre-emptive nuclear strike on Russia. And he meant immediate - he famously said “If you say why not bomb [Russia] tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at five o' clock, I say why not one o' clock?”
People have criticized him a lot for this one, but reading the book I think I got a pretty good sense of where he was coming from. Von Neumann hated totalitarianism. Really hated it. From his daughter Marina:
Throughout much of his career, he led a double life: as an intellectual leader in the ivory tower of pure mathematics and as a man of action, in constant demand as an advisor, consultant and decision-maker to what is sometimes called the military-industrial complex of the United States. My own belief is that these two aspects of his double life, his wide-ranging activities as well as his strictly intellectual pursuits, were motivated by two profound convictions. The first was the overriding responsibility that each of us has to make full use of whatever intellectual capabilities we were endowed with. He had the scientist's passion for learning and discovery for its own sake and the genius's ego-driven concern for the significance and durability of his own contributions. The second was the critical importance of an environment of political freedom for the pursuit of the first, and for the welfare of mankind in general.
I'm convinced, in fact, that all his involvements with the halls of power were driven by his sense of the fragility of that freedom. By the beginning of the 1930s, if not even earlier, he became convinced that the lights of civilization would be snuffed out all over Europe by the spread of totalitarianism from the right: Nazism and Fascism. So he made an unequivocal commitment to his home in the new world and to fight to preserve and reestablish freedom from that new beachhead.
In the 1940s and 1950s, he was equally convinced that the threat to civilization now came from totalitarianism on the left, that is, Soviet Communism, and his commitment was just as unequivocal to fighting it with whatever weapons lay at hand, scientific and economic as well as military. It was a matter of utter indifference to him, I believe, whether the threat came from the right or from the left. What motivated both his intense involvement in the issues of the day and his uncompromisingly hardline attitude was his belief in the overriding importance of political freedom, his strong sense of its continuing fragility, and his conviction that it was in the United States, and the passionate defense of the United States, that its best hope lay.
Bhattacharya expands on that “lights of civilization” phrase. Von Neumann was born to loving parents, in a super-rich family, during the Belle Epoque, in one of the most beautiful cities (with one of the most vibrant intellectual scenes) in history. He spent his youth flitting between the great German centers of learning, hashing out the foundations of quantum mechanics with a bunch of geniuses who all loved and admired him. Then the abortive Communist revolution in Hungary and the all-too-successful rise of Fascism in Germany destroyed all that. He had to watch, helpless, as his beloved universities were hollowed out into echo chambers for Nazi ideas. And then, after he escaped, Hitler killed many of the people he knew and loved. So yeah, he held a grudge.
But also: von Neumann invented the minimax theorem. This is a game theory principle which Bhattacharya compares to the old trick to get a fair division of pie - one player slices it, the other player picks which slice they want. Generalized, it says “assume that your opponent will act in the way that best serves their interests at your expense, then plan accordingly”.
In the late 1940s, there was no nuclear second strike capability. Whoever launched a nuclear first strike would just win totally with no downside. By minimax, as soon as the Soviet Union developed nuclear bombs, they would make the move that best served their interests - ie launch a nuclear first strike and win totally. So by minimax, America’s best option was to make the appropriate move given that that was true - which was clearly to nuke the USSR first, before they could get bombs themselves.
Knowing what we know now, this proved unnecessary. Partly this was because it turned out to be possible to develop a retaliatory capacity to discourage first strikes. And partly it was because the Soviets weren’t perfectly rational game theoretic agents (predictable in retrospect given that at this point nobody except von Neumann and a few of his friends had even heard of game theory). “There was perhaps an inclination [for von Neumann] to take a too exclusively rational point of view about the cases of historical events”, said his friend Stanislaw Ulam, in his obituary.
Outside of geopolitical conflict, von Neumann could show great compassion. He moved heaven and earth to further the careers of scientists he considered promising, with Alan Turing and Benoit Mandlebrot (among many others) benefiting from his generosity. A friend described him as “always gentle, always kind, always penetrating and always magnificently lucid.”
And he was especially good with children, for whom he had seemingly unlimited patience. Edward Teller wrote that "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.“
What Is It Like To Be A Martian?
So fine. He wasn’t a nerd and he might not have been a psychopath either. But, at the core, what was he? What was it like to be John von Neumann? To remember everything you’ve ever read? To be (according to rumor) the only person who has ever completely and straightforwardly understood quantum mechanics? Do you feel amazing all the time, like a god? Is it lonely? What is your internal experience?
The only time in The Man From The Future where I felt like I got a real glimpse of this was near the end, when Edward Teller was eulogizing his sometimes friend, sometimes rival. He said:
I have come to suspect that to most people thinking is painful. Some of us are addicted to thinking. Some of us find it a necessity. Johnny enjoyed it. I even have the suspicion that he enjoyed almost nothing else.
The book actually has a story that touches on this point in a kind of hilarious way. Von Neumann’s friend, fellow European Jewish emigre, and fellow Manhattan Project physicist Stanislaw Ulam contracted a case of viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. His doctors told him that he should “rest his brain”, ie avoid thinking too hard. A desperate Ulam tried to distract himself by playing solitaire, but couldn’t help wondering about the probabilities of winning. Failing to solve the problem with any statistical trick then known, he was unable to prevent himself from developing what is now called the Monte Carlo method, which proved instrumental in the development of the hydrogen bomb and much of modern statistics.
Bhattacharya returns to the same theme more darkly at the end. Von Neumann lies in bed, dying of cancer at only 53 (potentially from attending too many nuclear tests). His friends, families, and colleagues sit vigil with him at the hospital, and he begs them to ask him math problems, to test whether his brain is still intact. At first, he answers with the confidence of a god, solving even the most difficult questions with impossible speed. As the disease progresses, his performance gets worse and worse, until finally he cannot handle basic multiplication. Says his friend/rival Teller:
When he was dying of cancer, his brain was affected. I think that he suffered from this loss more than I have seen any human to suffer in any other circumstance.
Still, he had the presence of mind to make a last request: after a lifetime of culturally-Jewish atheism, he wished to be baptized. His daughter attributed her father’s “change of heart” to Pascal’s Wager: the idea that even a very small probability of gaining a better afterlife is worth the relatively trivial cost of a deathbed conversion. Even as his powers deserted him, John von Neumann remained a game theorist to the end.
Did Von Neumann Think We Would Make It?
The Man From The Future can seem a bit scatterbrained at times. Von Neumann revolutionized so many fields that it’s hard to find a unifying theme. What connects atom bombs and computers to climate, game theory, and self-replicators?
Bhattacharya’s inspired answer is: existential risk.
Von Neumann was not one to agonize about his own contribution to the world’s pending nuclear apocalypse, at least not publicly. But he deigned to offer his opinions in a 1955 article, “Can We Survive Technology?” The essay is tight and carefully-argued, with the lucidity of a mathematical proof. Under the circumstances, he devotes most of his space to nuclear war, although he briefly touches on other issues including global warming (in 1955!). He suspects there will be many more existential risks as time goes on, but does not waste time trying to name all of them (a few years earlier, he had coined the term “[technological] singularity”, meaning a point at which technology advanced so far that it became impossible to predict the details of what comes next). Instead, he gives generic advice:
In looking for a solution, it is well to exclude one pseudosolution at the start. The crisis will not be resolved by inhibiting this or that apparently particularly obnoxious form of technology. For one thing, the parts of technology, as well as of the underlying sciences, are so intertwined that in the long run nothing less than a total elimination of all technological progress would suffice for inhibition.
Also, on a more pedestrian and immediate basis, useful and harmful techniques lie everywhere so close together that it is never possible to separate the lions from the lambs. This is known to all who have so laboriously tried to separate secret, "classified" science or technology (military) from the "open" kind; success is never more — nor intended to be more — than transient, lasting perhaps half a decade.
Similarly, a separation into useful and harmful subjects in any technological sphere would probably diffuse into nothing in a decade. Moreover, in this case successful separation would have to be enduring (unlike the case of military "classification," in which even a few years' gain may be important) . Also, the proximity of useful techniques to harmful ones, and the possibility of putting the harmful ones to military use, puts a competitive premium on infringement. Hence the banning of particular technologies would have to be enforced on a worldwide basis. But the only authority that could do this effectively would have to be of such scope and perfection as to signal the resolution of international problems rather than the discovery of a means to resolve them.
Finally and, I believe, most importantly, prohibition of technology (invention and development, which are hardly separable from underlying scientific inquiry), is contrary to the whole ethos of the industrial age. It is irreconcilable with a major mode of intellectuality as our age understands it. It is hard to imagine such a restraint successfully imposed in our civilization. Only if those disasters that we fear had already occurred, only if humanity were already completely disillusioned about technological civilization, could such a step be taken. But not even the disasters of recent wars have produced that degree of disillusionment, as is proved by the phenomenal resiliency with which the industrial way of life recovered even—or particularly—in the worst-hit areas. The technological system retains enormous vitality, probably more than ever before, and the counsel of restraint is unlikely to be heeded.
Then what does he suggest?
What safeguard remains? Apparently only day-to-day — or perhaps year-to-year — opportunistic measures, along sequence of small, correct decisions. And this is not surprising. After all, the crisis is due to the rapidity of progress, to the probable further acceleration thereof, and to the reaching of certain critical relationships. Specifically, the effects that we are now beginning to produce are of the same order of magnitude as that of "the great globe itself." Indeed, they affect the earth as an entity. Hence further acceleration can no longer be absorbed as in the past by an extension of the area of operations. Under present conditions it is unreasonable to expect a novel cure-all. For progress there is no cure. Any attempt to find automatically safe channels for the present explosive variety of progress must lead to frustration. The only safety possible is relative, and it lies in an intelligent exercise of day-to-day judgment […]
The one solid fact is that the difficulties are due to an evolution that, while useful and constructive, is also dangerous. Can we produce the required adjustments with the necessary speed? The most hopeful answer is that the human species has been subjected to similar tests before and seems to have a congenital ability to come through, after varying amounts of trouble. To ask in advance for a complete recipe would be unreasonable. We can specify only the human qualities required:
patience, flexibility, intelligence.
This sounds suspiciously like the smartest man in the world admitting he’s not sure what to do.
Book Review: The Man From The Future