Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


Peter Sellers was a comic genius. In one of my favourite movies, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the wheelchair bound title character played by Peter Sellers, has trouble keeping his right arm from giving involuntary Nazi salutes, while making outrageous comments about dooms day machines and nuking the living daylights out of the Soviet Union. You haven’t lived if you haven’t seen it.
The outrageous Dr Strangelove is said to have been inspired by John von Neumann, who, as well as Alan Turing, are considered to be the fathers of modern computing. Their mathematical and intellectual prowess made them geniuses of a different kind.
Alan Turing is best known for his efforts in breaking the German Enigma code during the Second World War. In the process he formalised the concept of algorithms and computation with the invention of the “Turing Machine”, the father of the modern computer. He showed extraordinary mathematical and problem solving talents at an early age but was reported to have awkward social habits that may have been the result of Asperger syndrome.
John von Neumann had no such problems. He was quite the social butterfly, married twice and gave lavish parties in his Princeton mansion. His intellect has been described as awe inspiring, and not just by simpletons like me. Burn in Hungary, he spent the majority of his academic and professional life in Princeton, USA, where he came into contact with the most talented scientists and academics of his time.
Being Jewish, he was definitely not a Nazi, reportedly hating totalitarian regimes of both the right and left variety. He was unapologetic about being “violently anti-communist and much more militaristic than the norm”. As a member of the US Atomic Energy Commission, he developed the controversial equilibrium strategy which he named Mutual Assured Destruction, because the acronym MAD appealed to his quirky sense of humour. His now (in)famous quote “If you say why not bomb Soviet Russia tomorrow, I say, why not bomb it today?”(Life Magazine, 250257, Passing of a Great Mind, p96) is most likely to have inspired the Dr Strangelove character.
The breadth and depth of his knowledge of mathematics, physics, chemistry, weather systems, as well as ancient history are said to have astounded the acknowledged leaders in these fields. His was able to solve extremely complex problems in his head in seconds and would wake up frequently in the morning with complete solutions to previously unsolved mathematical conundrums.
Von Neumann also had a photographic memory. He was fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek at the age of six and could recite whole books verbatim, even years after having read them. Moreover, he could translate them from their original language at the same speed into English.
Beyond his academic career he was involved in the Manhattan project where he contributed groundbreaking work on explosions and shaped charges, which proved vital to get the plutonium-239 based atomic bombs to explode over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Not content with contributing a vast amount of scientific papers on a staggering range of topics, literally inventing the field of computer science in the process and being the inspiration for a truly funny movie, von Neumann also managed to invent the first self-replicating algorithm – known to you and me as a computer virus!
Thanks a lot, mate…