∫∫ John Von Neumann Tribute

This handsome man is John von Neumann, one of our heroes at Carbon Lighthouse. Von Neumann, a mathematician, was one of the most innovative thinkers of the 20th Century, making contributions that ranged from: game theory to set theory to quantum mechanics to thermonuclear physics to modern computing. Not bad for a man who never saw the age of 55.  December 28th marks what would have been von Neumann’s 108th Birthday.

Part of what makes von Neumann so remarkable is he didn’t just contribute to these fields, in many cases he fathered them. He developed the mathematical underpinning of quantum mechanics by showing the physics’ interchangeability with Hermitian operators in Hilbert spaces. In Game Theory, forget John Nash: students of economics know well the Von Neumann-Morgenstern utility theorem; von Neumann was a major pioneer. He is also the father of the modern computer, developing the first single memory, stored program architecture. In other words, he is awesome. And that’s only a partial list, too.

In tackling the challenge of building a sustainable planet, we draw inspiration from the great scientists and engineers who solved countless problems and opened up entire fields. Our modern problems will be solved. At Carbon Lighthouse, making buildings 100% carbon-free profitably is our first iteration of a solution. We will keep iterating, too, deploying improved technologies and business models. We are excited to work with others who want to think our way to a cleaner planet – through innovative engineering, innovative project finance, and innovative ideas that haven’t yet been thought up.


And now, our favorite von Neumann story. Severe nerd warning!

At a Princeton cocktail party a Chemistry Professor saunters up to von Neumann and says, “I have a puzzle for you.”

Von Neumann smiles, his cheeks buzzing with excitement, “Proceed professor.”

The Chemistry Professor says, “Here it is. There are two trains. They’re on the same track heading towards each other. They start forty miles apart. They travel twenty miles per hour. There’s a bumble bee, traveling sixty miles per hour, that starts on one train, flies to the other, then back to the first train and so on and so forth, zigzagging. The question is: When the trains crash and smush the bee into oblivion, how far has the bee traveled?”

The Chemistry Professor is feeling very good about this question. Because he knows there are two ways to solve the puzzle. One is the engineer’s way, which is to reason that if the trains are forty miles apart, they’ll collide at the midpoint: twenty miles. Since the trains go twenty miles per hour, this means they’ll have traveled for one hour. The bee meanwhile, travels sixty miles per hour, and if he has one hour until the trains crash then he will have gone sixty miles. Problem solved. Takes five seconds. This is the clever solution, and if Von Neumann got it this way, the professor could write if off as von Neumann’s having heard the puzzle before. The hard way to solve the problem is to treat it as a mathematician would, which is as an infinite series. You have to calculate the distance the bee covers every leg of the trip, back and forth between the trains until they crash. And then you add up all of those trips in an infinite series. If von Neumann did it this way, it would take even the great John von Neumann some time and the Chemistry Professor could take pride in having given a tough problem to the famous Hungarian-American mathematician.

But not three seconds elapsed from when the question was posed until von Neumann spoke up, “The bee traveled sixty miles.”

The Chemistry Professor nods, “Yes, that’s correct. So you knew the trick?”

Von Neumann looks puzzled, “The trick?”

“Yes. You know, because the trains crash after an hour and the bee travels sixty miles per hour?”

Von Neumann looks up then smiles, “Oh, yes, that’s very nice.”

The Chemistry Professor says, “You mean you didn’t know the trick?”

Von Neumann shakes his head, “No. I just summed the infinite series.”

One Response to ∫∫ John Von Neumann Tribute

  1. I am fascinated often by the thought process of other people. The experiences we have shape our perception of the world so differently. The train problem shows precisely this distinction.


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