Dyson, Feynman, Von Neumann, and the Dreaded “Warmed-Up Soup”

With Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study, 2016
Richard Feynman

The time has come for a quick decision. Sorry to say, it is no. Memories of Feynman are almost completely faded after 68 years. All that I remember clearly is what I said or wrote in talks and books more recently. In fact, it is warmed-up soup. I heard that phrase spoken loudly by a member of the audience when John von Neumann gave a plenary lecture at the International Conference of Mathematicians in Amsterdam in 1954. Like me, von Neumann had nothing fresh to say, and unlike me, he did not have the wisdom to say no. He was publicly humiliated, and ran out after his talk without waiting for questions. A horrible moment for von Neumann and also for the organizers of the conference.

John von Neumann

The lecture was about rings of operators, a subject that was new and fashionable in the 1930s. Nothing about unsolved problems. Nothing about the future. Nothing about computers, the subject that we knew was dearest to von Neumann’s heart. Somebody said in a voice loud enough to be heard all over the hall, ‘Aufgewärmte Suppe,’ which is German for ‘warmed-up soup.

Afterward, Dyson recalled, von Neumann walked out of the session with a look of embarrassment. Since then, Dyson has had a fear of giving a talk that is a replica of earlier lectures he gave. Despite being an internationally respected scientist, writer, and speaker, he maintained that insecurity until his final days.

“Quark Soup” Image by Anastasia Ershova: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/the-quark-soup/

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Paul Halpern

Paul Halpern

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Physicist and science writer. Author of Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect