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Which is the "best" biography of von Neumann available to the casual reader (math undergrad)? Also, other than the Ulam book, which other good biographies of physicists/mathematicians can be recommended?

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I changed the title, since it seems you're interested in not only Johnny von Neumann... – J. M. May 10 '11 at 7:42
ok, so how to get these books listed in the answers for FREE!! – Tomarinator Apr 23 '12 at 7:54

10 Answers 10

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Here are a few biographies of von Neumann.

Giorgio Israel, Ana Millán Gasca, The world as a mathematical game. John von Neumann and twentieth century science. Science Networks. Historical Studies, 38. Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel, 2009. xii+207 pp. ISBN: 978-3-7643-9895-8

Norman Macrae, John von Neumann. The scientific genius who pioneered the modern computer, game theory, nuclear deterrence, and much more. Reprint of the 1992 original. American Mathematical Society, Providence, RI, 1999. x+406 pp. ISBN: 0-8218-2064-8

Steve J. Heims, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener. From mathematics to the technologies of life and death. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.-London, 1980. xix+547 pp. ISBN: 0-262-08105-9

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The reviews for the Macrae book are pretty bad on amazon. Have you read these, and if so, could you recommend one or the other? I am intrigued by the new 'Letters' volume as well. I just wanted to know which of these mathematicians would prefer to read. – Praetoria May 10 '11 at 6:56
I read the Macrae book, and didn't care for it. I haven't read the others. I read a review of the Heims book; if I remember right, the reviewer thought Heims was trying to make a villain out of von Neumann and a hero out of Wiener, and thought Heims had way overstated the case. – Gerry Myerson May 10 '11 at 13:26

Richard Feynman's books:

  • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman.
  • What Do You Care What Other People Think?
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I'll make the note that Feynman himself did not intend these collections to be an autobiography, but more of a mere collection of anecdotes. But yes, I was rolling with laughter at some of these. – J. M. May 10 '11 at 7:40
I'll make the note that you gotta have a lil bit of orange juice. – anthus Apr 23 '12 at 10:17

A bit of a meta-answer: for biographical searches on mathematicians, a very good way it to visit the Mathematical Biographies maintained by University of St Andrews, find the guy, scroll to the bottom, and click on the link to the list of bibliographic references.

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To name a few,

Halmos: I want to be a mathematician

Shimura: The map of my life

Weil: The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician

Wiener: I am a mathematician

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I think it would be worthwhile to point out that all these are autobiographies and not biographies. There is a slight but important distinction in that... – t.b. May 10 '11 at 5:38
I read Shimura's autobiography, The Map Of My Life and it is amazing, professor Shimura has a very good sense of humor and the stories about World War II are really good. I remember laughing like crazy after reading a passage in which Goro and his wife were in a train in China or somewhere, and there was a really funny message through the speaker about something that "children must not do". An excellent recommendation indeed. – Adrián Barquero May 10 '11 at 6:20
thanks, I was not aware of the Shimura book. – Praetoria May 10 '11 at 6:58

Surprised it hasn't been mentioned yet:

is a biography of Paul Erdős, and is one of the most endearing biographies I've read of any person in any field.

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"Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges

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I can recommend Mark Kac's autobiography, Enigmas of Chance.

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Since you ask for more than one mathematician/physicist I would like to add to the list the following excellent book.

It is a really entertaining book. Each chapter is devoted to a different person. I remember the first three chapters are devoted to Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann.

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The autobiography of Bertrand Russell is a fascinating read. Only the beginning really deals with mathematics but is prose is a real pleasure to read. Follow the life of this great thinker and confront his views through the last century here : Russell's autobiography.

If you are more interested into the math the comic book Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is another lively biography of Russell, focused on his contribution to logic.

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