The Duties of John von Neumann’s Assistant in the 1930s
"The job entailed such onerous duties that only someone with an iron constitution could survive. My constitution, it so happened, was not made by iron. It was made of reeds and bamboo sticks"
The year is 1933. A 26 year-old former graduate student at Columbia University, Edgar R. Lorch (1907–1990) has just completed his Ph.D. in mathematics and is, in his own words “by some miracle” awarded a National Research Council Fellowship for a year of postdoctoral studies at Harvard University. Worried that the ongoing Great Depression will leave him unemployed, as the fellowship nears its end Lorch applies for a one-year extension to visit Princeton and study under Professor John von Neumann (1903–1957) at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Becoming von Neumann’s Assistant
Lorch’s Ph.D. thesis entitled “Elementary Transformations” had regarded Joseph Liouville (1809–1882)’s result showing the “impossibility of evaluating certain indefinite integrals, and of solving certain differential equations, in terms of elementary functions”. Elementary functions, Lorch defined as “those which are obtained in a finite number of steps by performing algebraic operations and taking exponentials and…