It is not always easy to separate truth from myth from falsehood, especially where all three walk into a bar together with a dog. This is a lesson taught by Inverse von Neumann, owner of the famous mathematician & game theorist Johnny von Neumann. Where he learned it is a matter of some speculation, perhaps Johnny himself, infamously perverse in matters of humor, as well as illegitimate father of the modern computer, & pioneer in the field of game theory.
Johnny and his dog Inverse were both very real, known to their Princeton, NJ neighbors & to colleagues at the Institute of Advanced Study. Equally real, it seems, was a fellow named Bigelow, who reports on a visit to the von Neumann house, arriving for an interview two hours late. As he entered, greeted by the professor, a large & somewhat rambunctious dog he’d met out front pushed its way in, practically between his legs, & made itself at home. On the way out, Bigelow reports the professor saying something like, “Don’t forget your dog.”
“My dog? But that is not my dog…” BIgelow reports blurting back, adding something his conclusion, “and apparently it wasn’t his either.”
The story (& its 1987 published source in Regis) is retold on the Snopes.com urban legends rumor page, along with many other versions of the same story involving other people & places, some going far back, others more current. Most of the others are clearly told as having been jokes, however, whereas the Bigelow story is presented as a documentary report–ostensibly true, yet almost certainly missing the falseness of its own reporter’s interpretation, having entirely missed the joke!
Here is what we shared with the urban legends site: In reference to your article on “Not My Dog,” particularly the Regis account of the famous story about Bigelow’s visit to von Neumann’s house, the irony is that it’s a true story–but only as far as Bigelow’s account of his own experience, unaware of its his misinterpretation. At the end of Bigelow’s true account of the incident, in other words, he supposedly “realizes” that von Neumann “believed it was my dog,” & that “it apparently wasn’t his either.”
Can it really be that Bigelow never got the joke, nor those who have quoted his story since? It is an historical fact that Johnny was a notorious trickster. And also an historical fact that Inverse was a well loved presence in the household, around the neighborhood & at the Institute for Advanced Study (which has a statue of him, I believe). Indeed, Inverse may have had some reputation as a trickster himself, though perhaps mainly “guilty by association,” i.e., by virtue of von Neumann’s tendency to “blame it on the dog.”
Does being a true story recounting a false conclusion make it a half-true story? I’d bet von Neumann never expressly said the dog wasn’t his, more likely something like, “Don’t forget your dog,” or “the dog you came with.” Perhaps he couldn’t resist the old joke, especially for someone two hours late, though I doubt he imagined his guest would never get the joke…unless testing him. He was used to playing tricks on the best & the brightest, after all. He once drove Einstein to the train station heading to NYC for some award, but put him on the platform for the train heading west.
Peter Sellers did a twisted version of the pooch joke in a Pink Panther film, when the Inspector asks a character with a dog by his side, “Does your dog bite?” Told, “No,” the Inspector goes to pat the dog, & gets attacked. “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite?” he reacts indignantly. “But that is not my dog,” says the character.
The following offers a more complete account of the story, with some of its strategic implications explored. Titled “Inverse at Princeton–lessons from the von Neumann dog,” it looks at the impact of the unknown unknown in historical decision-making, in von Neumann’s time & the Cuban Missile Crisis, along with the interplay between reality, make-believe, & delusion (mistaking the make-believe for the real). [Unfortunately, the piece itself needs editing & another draft, though the main elements are there.]
Inverse at Princeton.
[At the Bod Library, we are about to open our game & market-modeling annex named in honor of Inverse von Neumann, the IvN Wing for Games, Game Theory, Strategic Applications. Market-modeling & Economic Dynamics. Check at the front desk, www.bodlibrary.com, for opening details & link.]