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The autobiography of mathematician Stanislaw Ulam one of the great scientific minds of the twentieth century tells a story rich with amazingly prophetic speculations and peppered with lively anecdotes As a member of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1944 on Ulam helped to precipitate some of the most dramatic changes of the postwar world He was among the first to use and advocate computers for scientific research originated ideas for the nuclear propulsion of space vehicles and made fundamental contributions to many of today's most challenging mathematical projectsWith his wide ranging interests Ulam never emphasized the importance of his contributions to the research that resulted in the hydrogen bomb Now Daniel Hirsch and William Mathews reveal the true story of Ulam's pivotal role in the making of the Super in their historical introduction to this behind the scenes look at the minds and ideas that ushered in the nuclear age An epilogue by Françoise Ulam and Jan Mycielski sheds new light on Ulam's character and mathematical originality

10 thoughts on “Adventures of a Mathematician

  1. says:

    This was agreeable than the present style of the research papers or books which have so much symbolism and formulae on every page I am turned off when I see only formulas and symbols and little text It is too laborious for me to look at such pages not knowing what to concentrate on I wonder how many other mathematicians really read them in detail and enjoy themThis is uite remarkable coming from one of the top mathematicians of his time His own approach to mathematics was definitely verbal and less symbol based

  2. says:

    Stanislaw Ulam was a prominent twentieth century mathematician famous for inventing Monte Carlo methods and co inventing the hydrogen bomb This is not uite an autobiography It's one part memoir one part musings on science and mathematics and one part character sketches and anecdotes It originally started not as an autobiography of Ulam but as a memoir of his friend and colleague John von Neumann However the scope grew and it's now a long picaresue tour of Ulam's life times and contemporariesSeveral bits caught my attention First his description of childhood college and graduate mathematics in inter war poland My grandfather grew up in a similar milieu so this held personal resonance It was emotional reading though most of the teachers and colleagues he mentions are tagged with murdered by the Germans or died of hard circumstances in Russian exile in 1944 and the like It was a grim time to be a PoleUlam was a visiting fellow at Harvard in the United States when the war broke out basically a postdoc And he had his kid brother Adam with him who was just about to start college When the war started the two brothers were cut off from their family and the family money and Stanislaw reports how frightened and worried he was making ends meet while getting his brother into a college Brown Adam turned out fine as it happens and went on to become a prominent SovietologistBy 1943 Stanislaw Ulam got pulled into the Manhattan Project and went to work in the theory group at Los Alamos He spent the rest of his career bouncing between academic jobs and the lab During a period at the lab he collaborated with Edward Teller on the development of the super Credit for the invention is disputed Teller claimed at various points that the key ideas were his but several observers notably Bethe think that Ulam made the primary contributions In Ulam's account here he had an idea knew it was a big important idea told Teller and they jointly improved it and it formed the basis of all future bombs Ulam is coy about technical details though you won't learn anything about engineering a hydrogen bomb in this book As I mentioned this book originally as about von Neumann not Ulam Von Neumann was one of the most interesting figures of the century and Ulam was one of the few people who thought of him as a friend and an eual not a demigod or a enfant terrible Ulam's describes Johnny as he calls him as exceedingly uick and clever but not so imaginative or bold as others and perhaps with a chip on his shoulder about doing applied math and uasi math rather than many deep fundamental new mathematical discoveries The best of the stories is that one day von Neumann walked into Ulam's office at Princeton to discuss a math problem and said the goyim have proved the following theorem with the implication being that we jews should be able to prove a stronger one Ulam repeated the joke and apparently Banach a pure goy thought it was hilariousUlam has a long description of the Oppenheimer affair and like the other scientists felt that Oppenheimer had been treated shabbily He does repeat with endorsement Johnny's comment about Oppenheimer's moral feelings Some people profess guilt to claim credit for the sinThe other favorite story of mine is as follows After the war Ulam had a very serious case of encephalitis and was near death and unable to think Even after his release from the hospital he was worried he had suffered serious permanent brain damage Erdos came to visit and they played chess Ulam won but worried that Erdos was going easy on him They played a second game Ulam won again and then Erdos said okay that's enough chess I'm done for the night and Ulam felt reassured that his partner had really been tryingSome choice excerpts from the book are available online

  3. says:

    Fascinating look into the mind of a geniusStan Ulam documents growing up in Lwow Poland how he became enchanted by math and would ultimately go on to be the father of the H Bomb in Los Alamos Along the way he wrote countless papers but is probably best known for discovering the Monte Carlo Method today much used in statistical analysis

  4. says:

    Ulam's life was undeniably fascinating I'm hesitant to give four stars because the book was at times not an easy read – it often felt like it would benefit from a thorough editing That said the book is still worth reading especially if you want to know about the background of the Manhattan project and the birth of computers Not from the technical point of view though Ulam uses the technical jargon very sparsely but what I found interesting is his account of people he has met and worked with throughout the years Banach von Neumann Fermi Erdos and many othersUlam prompts the reader to think about some of the brightest minds of the 20th century not merely as geniuses but as humans with all their strengths and weaknesses Then I was introduced to Einstein himself and noticed his rather peculiar English He would say He is a very good formula pointing at something on the blackboard p71I have found the philosophical passages of the book ie Random reflections a bit long but at the same time containing many valuable thoughts on math science and language It is a truism to say that there is a clarity to French which is not there in other tongues and I suppose this makes a difference in the mathematical and scientific literature Thoughts are steered in different ways In French generalizations come to my mind and stimulate me toward conciseness and simplification In English one sees the practical sense; German tends to make one go for a depth which is not always there p275 I am turned off when I see only formulas and symbols and little text It is too laborious for me to look at such pages not knowing what to concentrate on I wonder how many other mathematicians really read them in detail and enjoy them p275

  5. says:

    A phenomenal account of the life of Ulam and many other great intellects of his time His style is captivating the clarity of delivery is inspiring Content wise a lot can be said about the richness of his experience the great achievements of his life the people around him the tragedies and I'll only comment that I was awestruck by the life of a genius and certainly this has been the closest I have ever come to understanding how great scientists live their lives

  6. says:

    A book about the great scholar great person and very interesting life owner The book definitely deserves my week to dedicate reading it

  7. says:

    It is just me of course but I happen to love exactly this type of autobiographical prose where accurate accounts and amusing stories for nearly all members of the Manhattan Project are given

  8. says:

    From the co holder on the patent on the hydrogen bomb Ulam was a mathematicians mathematician Especially good on his early life in Poland

  9. says:

    Ulam was born in 1909 in a wealthy assimilated polonophone Jewish family in Lemberg Austria Hungary When he was a child the city became Lwów Poland; by the time it became Lviv Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic he was already in the United States Ulam showed a talent for mathematics in school I was surprised to read that he learned algebra from a German translation of Euler's Elements of Algebra and joined the famous prewar Polish school of mathematics he knew Banach Steinhaus and Kuratowski Prewar Poland also had a great school of cryptanalysis but this was not publicly known until after this book was published After Ulam got his PhD there were too few open academic positions in Europe so he went to the United States teaching and doing research at Princeton Harvard and the University of Wisconsin During the war Ulam worked at Los Alamos then taught at the University of Southern California and then went back to Los Alamos where he co invented the American hydrogen bomb with Teller and Bethe Apart from his work in pure mathematics ergodic theory measure theory etc which I cannot appreciate properly Ulam co invented cellular automata with his lifelong friend John von Neumann started the study of branching processes originally to model the chain reaction in an atomic bomb though now it is mostly used in population biology and invented the Monte Carlo method Much of the book consists of memories of von Neumann; Ulam introduced von Neumann to his second wife; von Neumann invited Ulam to the United States if Ulam had gone to the Soviet Union in 1935 instead or stayed in Lwów his life would have been very different; Ulam showed von Neumann Lwów and von Neumann showed him Budapest; von Neumann was fond of Jewish jokes eg The goyim had proved this theorem and geeky jokes the points in a plot don't seem to lie on a straight line well at least they lie on a plane It must have been great to live in an amazing time and to befriend geniuses

  10. says:

    While the mathematical and scientific specifics of this book would probably be intimidating if not overwhelming to most readers the author relates his life story with plenty of enjoyable and easily understood material regarding his personal and professional relationships with many of the greatest minds of the 20th century And perhaps most interesting was his willingness to freuently interrupt his own narrative to wonder about the nature of human memory abstract thinking scientific talent and the mathematical mind versus the scientific mindAs for the math and science I struggled to recall what I had learned in college undergraduate courses and had to use the dictionary a few times to grasp the challenges and breakthroughs he enjoyed describing The mathematics of sets and series were beyond my abilities of abstract thinking in college and fortunately when Ulam started to get into those topics he tended to stop himself and dismiss the topic as beyond the scope of this bookAs with most of the biographies I've read of the brilliant minds that arose in Europe in early 20th century I was most interested in how in his youth he found his avocation or how it found him I continue to be amazed at the superb educational opportunities then provided in continental Europe but so how uickly that system was destroyed by the Nazi regime and the mass exodus of many of the best minds to the United StatesUlam has many stories to tell about how those Europeans came together on American campuses and en masse at Los Alamos Some of his stories made me laugh out loud especially ones involving jokes based on some estoric humor which he gladly explains I don't know why but I found the Los Alamos Jewish humor much funnier than the Catskills variety Beyond the fun and games this book presents a good summary of the critical points in the development of abstract thinking during his lifetime up to 1976