Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, to mark our Future Issue, we turn to a feature from June 1955 by John von Neumann tackling the profound questions wrought by radical technical advancement—in von Neumann’s day the atomic bomb and climate change. von Neumann was one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most influential geniuses. The polymath and patron saint of Game Theory was instrumental in developing America’s nuclear superiority toward the end of World War II as well as in framing the decades-long Cold War with the Soviet Union. In his time, von Neumann was said to possess “the world’s greatest mind.” Here is his characteristically pessimistic look on what the future holds.
By John von Neumann
In a short list of facts about his life he submitted to the National Academy of Sciences, he stated, “The part of my work I consider most essential is that on quantum mechanics, which developed in Göttingen in 1926, and subsequently in Berlin in 1927–1929. Also, my work on various forms of operator theory, Berlin 1930 and Princeton 1935–1939; on the ergodic theorem, Princeton, 1931–1932.”
During World War II, von Neumann worked on the Manhattan Project with theoretical physicist Edward Teller, mathematician Stanisław Ulam and others, problem solving key steps in the nuclear physics involved in thermonuclear reactions and the hydrogen bomb. He developed the mathematical models behind the explosive lenses used in the implosion-type nuclear weapon, and coined the term “kiloton” (of TNT), as a measure of the explosive force generated.
After the war, he served on the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, and consulted for a number of organizations, including the United States Air Force, the Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. As a Hungarian émigré, concerned that the Soviets would achieve nuclear superiority, he designed and promoted the policy of mutually assured destruction to limit the arms race