John von Neumann (1903–1957)
Moon face, double chin, waddling gait:
a stand-up comedian, most likely,
or a salesman for fitted carpets,
a bon vivant from the Rotary Club.
But as soon as he starts to think
watch out for Jáncsi from Budapest!
The soft processor under his skull-cap
will relentlessly tick away,
and with a mere flicker of his memory chip
he will produce a rush of ballistic equations.
In three moves he checkmated Eichmann and Stalin:
Göttingen-Cherbourg, Cherbourg-New York,
New York-Princeton. First Class
he escaped from the Final Solution.
All he needs is four hours’ sleep,
plenty of whipped cream on his Viennese strudel
and a couple of Zürich bank accounts.
Even those who have never heard of him
(and most of us haven’t)
switch with a click of the mouse
into his algebraic circuitry.
Without his own brand of it,
might never have got off the ground.
Whether it’s a question of playing dice
or detailing a hurricane — you name it..
self-fertilising automata or firing-tables
the piece of chalk in his hand
will lag behind the speed of his mind.
A maniac scribbling down Hilbert spaces,
rings and ideals, operating beyond all limits
with unlimited operators. A few new ideas,
he says, and we could jiggle the planet.
An elderly wunderkind with an interface
to the CIA. Helicopters roaring down on his lawn.
‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki: pure mathematics.
War is his cocaine. There is no such thing
as too big a weapon. Always in high spirits,
lunching with admirals.
A shy fellow at heart. Mysteries
his black box cannot cope with.
Love, for example,
Pessimism = a sin against science.
Energy out of the can, climate control,
eternal growth! To turn Iceland
into a tropical paradise — no problem!
The rest is nebbich.
Finally: staff outing to another island,
in business suit and blackened glasses,
Bikini. ‘Operation Turning-point’.
The test was successful. The cancer from the radiation
took ten years to turn off his synapses.
Translated by the author