Monday, April 23, 2012
4:15 pm

Applied Mathematics Colloquium

John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Numerical Analysis
Joseph Grcar, SIAM Visiting Lecturer
"Scientific computing" or "numerical analysis" has existed as both a mathematical speciality and as an occupation for over two hundred years. After Carl Friedrich Gauss developed least squares methods for astronomical and geodetic calculations, human computers found regular employment in government cartographic and scientific bureaus. Beginning in the 20th century, calculations were aided by a variety of general-purpose mechanical devices, including digital mechanical calculators and analog differential analyzers.

The invention of modern computers (those digital, electronic, and programmable) in the 1940s represented a paradigm shift in what could be achieved through calculation. From his wartime military duties John von Neumann acquired what he described as an "obscene" interest in mechanized calculations. No one was better situated than he to understand the advances that could be realized but also the range of technical obstacles that had to be overcome. As a necessary prerequisite to that work von Neumann and his collaborators functioned as the first computer scientists by writing a series of influential reports that described the design and use of the computers being built first at the University of Pennsylvania and later at the Institute of Advanced Study and then around the world.

This talk describes von Neumann's work on computing in the context of historical events and concludes with some lessons that can be learned from his success.
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