Sunday, January 8, 2012

Picking a president

John von Neumann was a brilliant scientist during the WWII era, contributing significantly to the Manhattan Project as the designer of the nuclear bomb "Fat Man," which destroyed Nagasaki, Japan.  After the war, he became a pioneer of the application of game theory to human conflict and a very influential advisor to President Eisenhower as the Cold War became more intense.

Von Neumann estimated that a major nuclear attack on the US would kill about 50 million people and that a similar attack by the US on the Soviet Union would kill about 100 million people.  Using that logic and the calculations of his version of game theory, von Neumann argued that the best strategy would be for the US to go ahead and perpetrate an unprovoked nuclear attack on the Soviet Union since the US would lose only half as many people as would the Soviets, constituting a "win" in his mind.

Although many other leading scientists of the day were horrified, President Eisenhower seriously considered von Neumann's ideas and even gave him the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Thankfully, he ultimately rejected von Neumann's advice.  Von Neumann later became the caricatured "mad scientist" in the movie Dr. Strangelove.

Take a minute and imagine the world we would live in now if the president of the United States had bought into the idea that a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union and a subsequent "win" in the Cold War was worth the deaths of 50 million Americans and 100 million Soviets.  Now keep that in mind when you think about the stakes of a presidential election.  Now think about the things that most Americans consider when voting for a president.  Now let me apologize if you can't sleep tonight.  Me either.

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