Nice Von

“If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.” — John von Neumann

This quote is popular on web pages about von Neumann, and about computing and mathematics generally. It is apparently not from a published work of von Neumann’s, but Franz L. Alt recalls it as a remark made from the podium by von Neumann as keynote speaker at the first national meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery in 1947. The exchange at that meeting is described at the end of Alt’s brief article “Archaeology of computers: Reminiscences, 1945–1947”, Communications of the ACM, volume 15, issue 7, July 1972, special issue: Twenty-fifth anniversary of the Association for Computing Machinery, p. 694. Alt recalls that von Neumann “mentioned the ‘new programming method’ for ENIAC and explained that its seemingly small vocabulary was in fact ample: that future computers, then in the design stage, would get along on a dozen instruction types, and this was known to be adequate for expressing all of mathematics…. Von Neumann went on to say that one need not be surprised at this small number, since about 1,000 words were known to be adequate for most situations of real life, and mathematics was only a small part of life, and a very simple part at that. This caused some hilarity in the audience, which provoked von Neumann to say: ‘If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.’ ”

Source of John von Neumann quote

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #36

• “By the time I was twenty-four I had constructed a complete system of philosophy. It rested on two principles: The Relativity of Things and The Circumferentiality of Man. I have since discovered that the first was not a very original discovery. It may be that the other was profound, but though I have racked my brains I cannot for the life of me remember what it was.” — W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938), sec. 66.

This Mortal Doyle

Challenger chopped and changed. That is to say, in one important respect, Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger lacked continuity. His philosophical views weren’t consistent. At one time he espoused materialism, at another he opposed it. He espoused it in “The Land of Mist” (1927):

“Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”

“Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”

But earlier, in “The Poison Belt” (1913), he had opposed it:

“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”

That story was published just over a century ago, but Challenger’s boast has not been vindicated in the meantime. So far as science can see, matter rules mind, not vice versa. Conan Doyle thought the same as the earlier Challenger, but Conan Doyle’s rich and teeming brain seems to have ended in “mere physical constituents”. To all appearances, when the organization of his brain broke down, so did his consciousness. And that concluded the cycle described by A.E. Housman in “Poem XXXII” of A Shropshire Lad (1896):

From far, from eve and morning
  And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
  Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
  Nor yet disperse apart –
Take my hand quick and tell me,
  What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
  How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
  I take my endless way. (ASL, XXXII)

Continue reading This Mortal Doyle

Lute to Kill

A little-known Housman poem that should be better-known:

Breathe, my lute, beneath my fingers
    One regretful breath,
One lament for life that lingers
    Round the doors of death.
For the frost has killed the rose,
And our summer dies in snows,
    And our morning once for all
    Gathers to the evenfall.

Hush, my lute, return to sleeping,
    Sing no songs again.
For the reaper stays his reaping
    On the darkened plain;
And the day has drained its cup,
And the twilight cometh up;
    Song and sorrow all that are
    Slumber at the even-star.

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) — see also Breathe, my lute at Wikilivres.

Lit Is It

You know, I’m getting worried at my inability to have unmediated experiences. Everything reminds me of something in literature. It reminds me of this passage in Brideshead Revisited (1945):

“Oh, don’t talk in that damned bounderish way. Why must you see everything second-hand? Why must this be a play? Why must my conscience be a Pre-Raphaelite picture?”

“It’s a way I have.”

“I hate it.” (Op. cit.)