Category Archives: Klára Dán von Neumann

Weather Woman

I’m weird in so many ways, so much so that sometimes I have to shake my own head in disbelief. An example: I just can’t watch podcasts. I find them an investment of time and attention that I simply don’t want to make. With written content, I can jump and skip and sift through the words to find places where I want to land. Not so with podcasts. I find myself at the mercy of the recording, waiting, often rolling my eyes, for stuff that will interest, entertain, or educate me.

Most people’d say podcasts are less demanding of the viewer’s investment than written text. But, of course, I’m not most people.

All this is preamble to today’s Pencil. I’ve discovered the coolest website called Lost Women of Science. Its tagline assures us it “tells the remarkable stories of forgotten women of science.” Perfect. Right up my alley. Only the site is comprised solely of podcasts. Dang, mang!

So, even though I’ve bookmarked the site I’ve never listened to any of the podcasts, for the reasons outlined above. But there’s always a way around things. I go to the site to become aware of whomever is being featured and then go to other sites where I can read about them. Like I said, I’m so weird that sometimes I shake my own head in disbelief.

Klára Dán von Neumann

That out of the way, allow me to tell you about Klára Dán von Neumann. You may have heard of her third husband, John von Neumann. He was the brilliant mathematician who worked on the Manhattan Project and who made countless contributions to the science of numbers including the fields of foundational mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, group theory, lattice theory, representation theory, operator algebras, geometry, numerical analysis, quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, nuclear physics, quantum statistical mechanics, game theory, general equilibrium theory, computing, linear programming, numerical meteorology, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing and statistics. Phew! Truth be told, I’m familiar with only a scant few of the aforementioned fields of inquiry. I know, for instance, what geometry is because I was forced to take it in high school. But stochastic computing? I think I may know how to pronounce the term. Maybe.

Anyway, Klára Dán was born to a rich Hungarian couple in 1911 and became a national figure skating champion in her early teens. She’d been married twice by the time she was 25 when she met John von Neumann. The two, both married, fell in love and divorced their respective spouses to be with each other. You have to figure that a brain on two legs like John von Neumann would need to be hitched up to someone with whom he could talk about things like ergodic theory. Klára filled the bill and then some.

Klára and John.

She was one of the first human beings to actually program computers. A lot of sources say she taught herself how to do this, needless to say because nobody else on Earth knew what the hell they were doing in the field. Klára had no formal training in mathematics other than the classes she’d taken in high school algebra and trigonometry. Yet her research and innovations in numbers and computers changed the world.

She and von Neumann moved to the United States just before the start of World War II. Both of them held positions at Princeton University until John moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work with Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam on what was then called “The Super” — what we now know as the hydrogen bomb. While von Neumann worked on developing a city-incinerating weapon, Klára remained at Princeton where she worked in the Office of Population Research. After the war, she joined her husband in New Mexico and programmed the first big electronic computers, MANIAC I and ENIAC. They were machines that filled warehouse-sized rooms, those being the days long before miniaturization, transistors, and microprocessors.

ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer)

Her own research resulted in far less mass-destruction than her husband’s. In fact, she was the first person to apply computer technology to meteorology. Don’t think her work merely meant we could plan our picnics the next day with more assurance than, say, our great-grandparents could. In-depth, computer-driven meteorology is today indispensable to farmers and food distributors, helping to feed hundreds of millions of people who might otherwise starve to death due to the vagaries of weather. Let’s go a step further and credit Klára Dán von Neumann with nudging humanity toward an understand that we’ve been frying the planet since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. If we do somehow stem global warming and its resultant climate weirding, forced migrations, disappearing bodies of water, worldwide crop failures, species disappearances, and other terrors we might thank Klára Dán von Neumann for working out the computer codes and systems that allowed us to quantify data from years past, to make accurate predictions about the future, and to understand we were killing ourselves before it actually happened.

Klára Dán von Neumann was one of many, many women who worked tirelessly and brilliantly on and in those first big computers. There were ENIAC programmers Jean Bartik, Betty Holberton, Kathleen Antonelli, Marlyn Meltzer, Ruth Teitelbaum, and Frances Spence. Joining them were statisticians Norma Gilbarg, Ellen-Kristine Eliassen, and Margaret Smagorinsky. But Klára’s accomplishments stood out.

While working at Princeton’s Office of Population Research, she’d taught herself any number of mathematical processes and systems that she would eventually employ in her programming work. “It was lots and lots of fun,” she told a science historian later. “I learned how to translate algebraic equations into numerical forms, which in turn then have to be put into machine language in the order in which the machine has to calculate it, either in sequence or going round and round, until it has finished with one part of the problem, and then go on some definite which-a-way, whatever seems to be right for it to do next…. The machine would have to be told the whole story, given all the instructions of what it was expected to do at once, and then be permitted to be on its own until it ran out of instructions.”

Here’s the process chart of ENIAC’s first successful weather forecast:

Me? I’m proud of myself when I can put two steps together to solve a problem.

Klára characterized her programming work as “very amusing” and like a “rather intricate jigsaw puzzle.”

In 1947, Klára Dán von Neumann became a key figure in a groundbreaking project to incorporate computers into the forecasting of weather. Working with meteorologists day and night at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where the ENIAC had been moved, Klára put in endless workdays for more than a month. She wrote, checked, and rechecked the codes and processes countless times. She oversaw and actually participated in creating more than 100,000 punch cards (remember, this is before magnetic tape storage). She lost 15 pounds during what her husband later described as “the siege in Aberdeen.” The end results were the first half-dozen computer weather forecasts, two 12-hour and four 24-hour outlooks. They were the first successful physics experiments done by computer.

Being a benighted time, the scientific paper on the project was credited only to the men who worked on it. Had the experiment been conducted today, Klára Dán von Neumann undoubtedly would be credited with co-authorship.

John von Neumann developed cancer caused by his work with radioactive materials in Los Alamos. He died in 1956. A couple of years later, Klára married an oceanographer and physicist and moved with him to California. On November 10, 1963, she got into her car at her home in La Jolla and drove down to the ocean. She walked into the water and was never seen again. Her death was ruled a suicide.

The information contained herein came from a 2017 article written by Sarah Witman for Smithsonian Magazine, the John von Neumann and Klára Dán von Neumann Papers in the Library of Congress, a 2017 piece in Forbes Magazine written by Marshall Shepherd, and a 2021 article written by Kate Ravilious in The Guardian. If you’re interested in the Lost Wome of Science five-part podcast on Klára Dán von Neumann, here’s the link.

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