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The Maniac by Benjamín Labatut

Benjamín Labatut is a Chilean writer who was born in the Netherlands. I was keen to read his latest book, his fourth so far, having previously read When We Cease to Understand the World, a brilliant exploration of the lives and discoveries of various scientists. The author described it himself as ‘a book made up by an essay (which is not chemically pure), two stories that try not to be stories, a short novel, and a semi-biographical prose piece.’ The author John Banville described it as a book that ‘could be defined as a non-fiction novel’.

I am not someone who would list science as an interest, or even something that I would want to read about. Labatut’s books are all about science and the personalities of the, mainly, men who are obsessed with it; they are a surprise with their mix of fact and imagination. In his new book The Maniac, we hear the story narrated by a multitude of characters, all of whom contribute a slightly different insight or observation.

The epigraph at the start of the book is one of the best and most dramatic I have ever come across. I think it is worth quoting in full:

I saw a queen, wearing a gold dress, and her dress was full of eyes, and all the eyes were transparent, like fiery flames and yet like crystals. The crown she wore on her head had many crowns, one above the other, as there were eyes in her dress. She approached me dreadfully fast and put her foot on my neck, and cried out in a terrible voice: “Do you know who I am?” And I said: “Yes! Long have you caused me pain and woe. You are my soul’s faculty of reason. Hadewijch of Brabant, Thirteenth-century poet and mystic

We begin the book with the Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest who fell into despair when he saw science and technology become tyrannical figures. More dramatically, we begin with him in 1933 shooting his son, Vassily, who had Down syndrome, before turning the gun on himself. Although a close friend of, and highly regarded by Einstein, Ehrenfest was always subject to crippling depression. This short 26-page chapter stands alone and describes itself as The Discovery of the Irrational.

The next section turns to a different character and calls itself The Mad Dreams of Reason. Here we find our main character, Hungarian mathematician Neumann János Lajos or as he became, Johnny von Neumann. If I can find one fault with The Maniac, it is in the use of these names, constantly changing from Jancsi to Johnny to John. And because all the chapters are narrated by a host of characters, friends, wives, colleagues, and rivals, with their various voices and perspectives, this changing of names leads to plenty of confusion.

I’m not afraid to admit that I had never heard of von Neumann. I haven’t seen the movie Oppenheimer, in which he played a part, but I believe that he birthed the modern computer, laid down the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, wrote the equation for the implosion of the atomic bomb, fathered the Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, heralded the arrival of digital life, self-reproducing machines, artificial intelligence and technological singularity. He also had all the traits we associate with the genius and the mad scientist:

When not fully involved, however, his mind was always wandering and never dwelled on any particular topic for too long. And there was his extreme forgetfulness: at forty, he could quote back a book he had read when he was six, word for word, but he could easily forget a friend’s or a colleague’s name, and be completely stumped by someone asking what he had for breakfast. To me, it was clear that Jancsi simply couldn’t stop thinking. His mind was in a state of constant hunger. During his career he flitted from one branch of the exact sciences to the next, never coming to rest…

In one short chapter we hear from George Pólya, a professor of mathematics who was teaching a seminar in Budapest.

But, then, I came to an important theorem. This, I said, was exceedingly difficult. Not proven yet. Not by anyone. Lots had tried, yes, tried and failed. I myself was trying, for decades, using the class to test my proofs. I was getting close, I knew it. I could feel it. That is mathematics, see? A feeling. You feel, even before the answer you have the feeling. Ah! you say. Yes! This feels right! But you don’t know, not till the very end. And even at the end, sometimes you don’t know. Or you don’t understand. So I showed the problem to the class, showed the theorem and what I had done, and how it did not work, not yet. And then I told everyone, Discuss, discuss! Bright boys, very bright boys, all of them, all talking out loud. That is how I teach you see? Some people cannot, but I like the noise, the questions, the fights. It’s how I do my best work. But von Neumann did not participate. Not a word. Not him. He just closed his eyes and then he raised his hand. When I called on him, he walked to the blackboard and wrote down a completely stunning proof. In a second. With no effort. No thinking even, only doing. I could not believe it. Years, all my years of work, passed by in a second. And this thing he did…it was so beautiful, so elegant, I remember asking myself, What is this? This boy…What kind of a boy is this? I still don’t know, but after that, I was afraid of von Neumann.

And it is the pieces like that which make me love the book. You can imagine them as cinema, the drama of the scene. It is very visual, and that is what Labatut does, he brings the opaque and obscure and brings them to life in front of your eyes.

As the book progresses, we see von Neumann start to focus his attention on computers. While the US military was using him to work on bombs, he was thinking bigger.

He was considering problems that were completely unassailable at the time.

He wanted to mathematize everything.

To spark revolutions in biology, economics, neurology, and cosmology.

To transform all areas of human thought and grab science by the throat by unleashing the power of unlimited computation.

We owe so much to him.

‘Cause he didn’t just give us the most important technological breakthrough of the 20th century.

He left us part of his mind.

We christened our machine the Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer.

MANIAC, for short.

At one point von Neumann writes a paper about something christened a ‘von Neumann probe’, a self-building, self-repairing, and self-improving spacecraft that we could launch to colonise the outer planets of our solar system and from there, blast off towards the darkest reaches of space. ‘They would land on alien shores, mine the necessary materials to assemble copies of themselves, and then send their improved offspring on an endless journey into the void.’ This is like the best-laid plot of a sci-fi thriller, but then it gets better over the page:

And what if they decided to turn around and come back to us, to undo their million-year voyage and demand that we – their long-lost parents – forgive their deeds and provide an answer to that most pressing question, one that also haunts and tortures our own species: Why? Why did we create and abandon them? Why did we send them out into the dark?

That is just the best plot for a movie, or perhaps it is the only plot that we have been using since we watched the Star Trek series on TV as kids.

There is a third section to the book entitled Lee or The Delusions of Artificial Intelligence. Seventy-five pages that take us in yet another unexpected direction. Now we are in the present time, well sort of, because we are also looking at the ancient game of Go, which was invented some 4,500 years ago. Black and white stones are placed on a board with a 19x19 grid of lines. It contains 361 points and the number of possible positions have been calculated to 2.1×10170. Lee Sedol, a Korean 9 dan master of Go is seen as the most creative player of his generation. The final chapters tell of the challenge between Lee and an artificial intelligence programme called AlphaGo. It sounds a little dry, but in Labatut’s hands it becomes utterly riveting. The games, the tactics, the mental toll taken on Lee. I would never have believed that a board game between a man and a computer could have become such a compelling story.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Pushkin Press


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