by Benjamín Labatut

Hardcover, 2023




Penguin Press (2023), 368 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:From one of contemporary literature�??s most exciting new voices, a haunting story centered on the Hungarian polymath John von Neumann, tracing the impact of his singular legacy on the dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century and the nascent age of AI Benjamín Labatut�??s When We Cease to Understand the World electrified a global readership. A Booker Prize and National Book Award finalist, and one of the New York Times�?? Ten Best Books of the Year, it explored the life and thought of a clutch of mathematicians and physicists who took science to strange and sometimes dangerous new realms. In The MANIAC, Labatut has created a tour de force on an even grander scale. A prodigy whose gifts terrified the people around him, John von Neumann transformed every field he touched, inventing game theory and the first programable computer, and pioneering AI, digital life, and cellular automata. Through a chorus of family members, friends, colleagues, and rivals, Labatut shows us the evolution of a mind unmatched and of a body of work that has unmoored the world in its wake. The MANIAC places von Neumann at the center of a literary triptych that begins with Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist and friend of Einstein, who fell into despair when he saw science and technology become tyrannical forces; it ends a hundred years later, in the showdown between the South Korean Go Master Lee Sedol and the AI program AlphaGo, an encounter embodying the central question of von Neumann's most ambitious unfinished project: the creation of a self-reproducing machine, an intelligence able to evolve beyond human understanding or control. A work of beauty and fabulous momentum, The MANIAC confronts us with the deepest questions we face as… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member RajivC
This book by Benjamin Labatut is interesting. As in his last book, it is a work of fiction based on facts. What makes the book compelling, are the stories and the links - no matter how tenuous between genius and depression. This link comes through strongly in the first section about mathematicians.
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The second section concerns the development of computers and the atom bomb.
And in the last section, AI.
The link between mania and genius is weakest in the last section. The book is sometimes difficult to follow, especially in the second section, where he keeps jumping around.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
This tryptic fictionalizes three historical figures: two physicists, Paul Ehrenfest and Janos von Neumann; and Lee Sodol, a master of the ancient Chinese game of GO. All of these men were/are supremely gifted intellectually, and Labatut skillfully uses them to explore the strange links between
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inspiration, mania, and madness. The two physicists became unmoored by the contradictions that arose from quantum mechanics: theories that seemed to defy accepted scientific dogma and, indeed, even common sense. Ehrenfest became suicidal, but von Neumann just moved on to other challenges.

The centerpiece of the novel is an outstanding and engaging examination of von Neumann’s personal and professional life as told from the perspectives of family, friends, and colleagues. Despite an eerie level of intelligence that was apparent even in childhood, von Neumann had a deeply flawed personal life. Nonetheless, his professional interests ranged broadly and were widely accepted by his peers, yet his pursuit of them often bordered on the manic. He always had an intense interest in computers and in his later years, he theorized about a future where computers could evolve without human intervention and even self-replicate. Unfortunately, the state of computer technology in the 50’s was too rudimentary for him to ever advance his ideas much beyond the theoretical.

In the final section of the novel, Labatac uses the complicated strategy game of GO to illustrate how advances in computer science have accelerated the potential to realize some of von Neumann’s farfetched predictions. The GO master, Lee Sodol, faced off against a computer that he rapidly discovered to have evolved some decidedly human and even superhuman traits making it an almost invincible GO player. Not unlike the strange quantum effects and their accompanying dangers to humanity, artificial intelligence also cannot readily be explained using our current understanding of computers and furthermore may pose an even greater existential threat to mankind.

THE MANIAC is a compelling reading experience not only for the timeliness of its subject matter, but also for the engaging way that Labatac presents it. He makes dense scientific topics readily accessible to most readers.
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LibraryThing member Maquina_Lectora
In the realm of science, few names evoke as much intrigue and admiration as John von Neumann. A polymath of unparalleled brilliance, his significant contributions to mathematics, physics, and computer science have left an indelible mark on the world. In The Maniac, Benjamín Labatut takes the
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reader on a captivating journey through the evolution of von Neumann’s mind and his groundbreaking body of work that has reshaped the very foundations of science. Von Neumann’s mathematical powers were so exceptional that Hans Bethe, a Nobel laureate and a friend of his, once said: “I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man”.

One of the central themes explored in “The Maniac” is the very limit of human understanding. Through the experiences and narratives of family members, friends, colleagues, and adversaries, Labatut, explores von Neumann’s life and work, and how his voracious thirst for knowledge, driven by his desire to understand the world around him, pushed the boundaries of what was thought to be achievable. However, this relentless pursuit also exposes the inherent dangers of technology and the potential for it to outpace human comprehension. The book’s unique and challenging writing style, blending fact and fiction, serves as a poignant reminder that the line between genius and madness can often be blurred.

Another theme explored in the book is how closely science and politics were intertwined during the Cold War. Von Neumann’s involvement in accelerating American investment in nuclear weapons highlights the complex ethical implications that arise when scientific progress becomes intertwined with political interests.

Within the context of “The Maniac,” the title itself refers to MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Computer), an early computer and successor to the groundbreaking ENIAC. MANIAC represents a significant milestone in the history of computing. It was developed by John von Neumann and built under the direction of the Greek-American physicist and mathematician, Nicholas Metropolis, at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. This technological marvel not only showcases von Neumann’s contributions but also illustrates the ever-evolving relationship between science, technology, and human progress.

While not directly connected to John von Neumann, the story of AlphaGo can be seen as a reflection of his work and the broader themes explored in “The Maniac.” AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence program, exemplifies the potential of human intelligence and its ability to push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding. However, it also raises profound questions concerning the ethical implications of such advancements and the extent to which technology may surpass human control.

The Maniac paints a vivid portrait of the human cost associated with scientific progress. Through a masterful blend of fact and fiction, Labatut enlightens us on the limits of knowledge, the dangers of technology, and the human cost of scientific progress. But as we turn the final page, we are also left with a profound appreciation for the complexities of genius and a renewed sense of awe for the transformative power of the human mind.
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LibraryThing member waldhaus1
Presages a transfer of power to machine life. Beginning with a factionalized but accurate biography of John Von Nueman. He is presented as the ultimate example of a human mathematical prodigy. He grasps instantly what it took other great mathematicians weeks to understand. At the end of his life in
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the fifties he becomes obsessed with the idea of developing a machine life that will evolve. Although he is responsible for developing the first large scale mechanical computer in order to facilitate development of the hydrogen bomb he fails at his attempt to design his machine that will evolve.
The book then moves ahead half a century to tell the story of the computer that became the best Go player on the world. Out achieved its preeminence by learning and evolving.
The reader is left to wonder what next.
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LibraryThing member ZeljanaMaricFerli
I liked it, but it was forgettable. It is more of a concept than a traditional novel, with many parts that loosely follow the themes of math, early computer science, AI and machine learning. My favourite part was the one about John von Neumann, which is the main part of the novel. The intro and the
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one at the end were just there to set up and complete the scene.
At times it felt like I was reading a documentary film script, with all those characters close to Neumann talking about him from their perspective. It felt strange to read fictionalized accounts of so many real people. I guess that's the part of the charm, but even though the topic was interesting I wasn't feeling very invested in it.
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LibraryThing member jspurdy
After a bit of a slow start, I found this story about John von Neumann's life and contributions to science, atomic bombs, computers, and artificial intelligence to be very interesting. The last section on the AlphaGo computer's victory was really a related but separate story, but no less
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interesting. Those interested in science and computers will find it interesting.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
The MANIAC: In which Benjamin Labatut displays superior intelligence and superior English prose skills (as compared to me on both counts) while writing in his third language. The last part of the book focused on the breaking of the spirits of Go and chess masters when bested by AI. I know how they
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I am not entirely sure how to talk about this book. I guess I will start by saying that though I thoroughly enjoyed the visual and aural spectacle of the movie Oppenheimer, I am on record as not liking the script for the film. There were a few issues for me. One was the entire inclusion of the Florence Pugh storyline. I acknowledge that Florence Pugh has exceptionally fine breasts, and finding a way to include them in any movie is good for box-office, but other than that it weakened the movie. It added bulk (not just time but superfluous subject matter) to an already bloated film. But I digress, my bigger issue, and the one that is relevant to this review, is that in the parts where things were not blowing up I sensed that there was a more interesting human story to be told than the one the Nolan brothers settled on, and I think this book contained it. Of course Oppenheimer has strong name recognition/brand value, and he is an interesting man, but he was not 1/10th as interesting as Johnny von Neumann (who was a part of many of the most notable advances in physics in the 20th century, including being one of the most productive members of the group of physicists at Los Alamos but who is acknowledged only in passing in the film Oppenheimer) and his buddies and special lady friends. And even more important, this book didn't stop with the A-bomb/H-bomb and the guilty feelings of the developers when they realized what they had wrought (that is included of course) but showed how we got to the modern computer/AI from the same bank of mathematics/physics work that gave us nuclear weapons. Labatut focuses in on how we are again justifying progress rather than thinking through the costs of some progress. Specifically, the author wants the reader to realize that like nuclear bombs, AI also has the capacity to destroy our humanity and in fact to destroy humanity writ large.

Von Neumann's story is only one of three in The MANIAC, but it is the one that owns the most real estate by far, and when someone makes this into a movie it should focus on that story. The first section of the book relates the agonizing tale of Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist who was destroyed by quantum mechanics (truly.) Ehrenfest went mad as he tried to make sense of QM in a way that made it rational and beneficial to humankind. He was unable to find a silver lining, was rendered unable to work, and came to the most tragic of ends. The last section shows us basically how AI makes humans obsolete, (illustrated by the contest between, arguably, the greatest Go player in history and AlphaGO, the go-conquering AI steamroller.) The first and third sections make for excellent reading, though the third section is less developed than it should be (but also this is tied up with the work I do, and it might be more than enough for an audience that doesn't wrestle with this sort of thing before breakfast most days.) That second section though -- that blew me away. The story is told by a host of narrators (I listened to this, and the audiobook cast was remarkable.) The narrators are all intimately tied to Johnny. Perhaps my favorite part was the section on von Neumann's invention of game theory (as told by the co-creator Oskar Morgenstern) but a close second was the portion narrated by his second wife (trust that they are the most toxic couple one can possibly imagine, and their destruction of one another and of themselves is as riveting as it is tragic.) I am not sure if the first and third sections were strictly necessary, but I do understand what Labatut wanted to say, and those sections help him say that.

The MANIAC is historical fiction, a genre I often find turgid and lumbering but which when done right is wonderful and shows us how fiction can do what straightforward historical reporting cannot. Here it is not just done right, it is incandescent.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is very well-written and engaging, but I'm not sure it holds together very well. The book has several different sections, each focusing on a different man with a brilliant scientific mind. These different storylines all examine how these men relate or fail to relate to the world around them as
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they pursue their scientific knowledge and accomplishments. A lot of the book focuses on John von Neumann and his role in the creation of the atomic bomb, but also how he used and manipulated the people around him and was ultimately isolated and afraid at the end of his life. Another theme that connects all of these stories, and which comes to fruition the most in the final story about a human losing a Go tournament to a computer, is our understanding of how human brains work, and human attempts to make machines that can think like humans.

All of these individual threads are very interesting and well-written, but I wish there had been some final chapter that brought them all together more neatly.

I listened to the audiobook, which is read by different narrators for each section, and is very well-done.
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