A Fascinating Letter, continued

February 24, 2012

A couple of days ago, I wrote about some newly-declassified correspondence between  the US National Security Agency and John Nash, the mathematician who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory, and was the subject of the book, and movie, A Beautiful Mind.

I’ve subsequently come across a couple of other blog posts on this.  At the Turing’s Invisible Hand blog, Noam Nisan reviews the similarity of what Nash was suggesting, and the modern approach to cryptography.  He has some additional quotes from Nash’s letters, too.

At the Adventures in Computation blog, Aaron (who in real life is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania) mentions another, slightly later letter that also foreshadows modern ideas about computational complexity.  This letter was written in March, 1956, (originally in German) by  Kurt Gödel, the Austrian mathematician  best known for his Incompleteness Theorem, to John von Neumann, the Hungarian-American mathematician who (among many other things) worked on the Manhattan Project, and in the fields of game theory, quantum mechanics, and computer science.  Sadly, not much came of the letter; von Neumann was suffering from cancer, possibly caused by radiation exposure he received while working on the atomic bomb.

Both Gödel and von Neumann spent time in Princeton, at the Institute for Advanced Study, and Nash spent much of his career at Princeton University.  Nisan has a somehow appealing suggestion:

That both Nash and Goedel passed through Princeton may imply that these ideas were somehow “in the air” there.

Perhaps the idea of something in  the air is too fanciful, but there was quite a confluence of very bright people in Princeton (including Einstein, of course).  I guess it would be surprising if nothing of note had come from it.


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