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Nicholas Constantine Metropolis, or Nick the Greek, born on 11 June 1915, Greek-American physicist, grew up in Chicago and earned his bachelor's degree (1936) and doctorate (1941) in experimental physics from the University of Chicago. He was recruited to Los Alamos National Laboratory by J. Robert Oppenheimer in April 1943. At Los Alamos, he was one of the original scientists of the Manhattan Project, and collaborated with Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller on the first nuclear reactors.

At Los Alamos during World War II, he endured, with Richard Feynman, the tedium of the slow, clanking, electromechanical devices used for hand calculations needed for weapons design. They actually hung out a shingle for their "repair business." Computing at the Los Alamos Laboratory during the war evolved from hand calculations, to punched-card computations, and then to electronic computing on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). The first electronic computer, ENIAC was developed at the University of Pennsylvania under the leadership of John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. John von Neumann's association with the ENIAC team, his knowledge of the Los Alamos effort, and his recognition of the profound implications of electronic computing led to his arranging for Stanley Frankel and Metropolis to run the first scientific problem--complex calculations involving the hydrogen bomb design--on the ENIAC in 1945.

After the war, Metropolis went back to Chicago as an assistant professor, but returned to the Laboratory in 1948 to form and lead the group in the Theoretical (T) Division that designed and built the MANIAC computer in 1952 and, five years later, MANIAC II. Metropolis returned to the University of Chicago in 1957 as professor of physics, founded and directed the university's Institute for Computer Research, but came back to Los Alamos in 1965.

Metropolis is best known for his contributions to the Monte Carlo method and the field of integro-differential equations. The code that was to become the famous Monte Carlo method of calculation originated from a synthesis of insights that Metropolis brought to more general applications in collaboration with Stanislaw Ulam in 1949. A team headed by Metropolis, which included Anthony Turkevich from Chicago, carried out the first actual Monte Carlo calculations on the ENIAC computer (the world's first electronic digital computer, built at the University of Pennsylvania) in 1948. Metropolis attributes the germ of this statistical method to Enrico Fermi, who had used such ideas some 15 years earlier.

1953 Nicholas Metropolis introduces the idea of thermodynamic simulated annealing algorithms, Events in Science and Mathematics

The Metropolis algorithm, first described in a 1953 paper by Metropolis, A. Rosenbluth, M. Rosenbluth, A. Teller, and Edward Teller, was cited in Computing in Science and Engineering as being among the top 10 algorithms having the "greatest influence on the development and practice of science and engineering in the 20th century."

A great architect of computational technique, Metropolis clearly foresaw the use of the computer as an experimental tool in mathematical discovery itself, as illustrated by his 1973 work with Paul Stein and Myron Stein on the universal nature of stable limit cycles associated with maps of the interval. The insight gained through this work would later help guide Mitchell Feigenbaum to the development of models of discrete dynamical systems. Metropolis also was greatly concerned about problems with the foundations of mathematics itself that were revealed through computer use. He and the late Richard Hamming, friends from undergraduate days, spent hours discussing problems such as the concept of computable numbers. In the second half of his long career, Metropolis and the late Gian-Carlo Rota, renowned professor of mathematics and philosophy at MIT, became friends. This collaboration led to the publication of articles about foundational issues ranging from significance arithmetic, to new viewpoints on real numbers, to new insights into a subject as old as symmetric functions. In 1980, Los Alamos National Laboratory conferred on Metropolis the first senior fellow title. He was awarded the Pioneer Medal by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1997.

Metropolis enjoyed creating original names for discoveries. For example, when Emilio Segré asked Metropolis to suggest names for two new elements Segré and others had discovered, Metropolis proposed "technetium" (from the Greek , 'technetos,' meaning 'artificial') for element 43, and "astatine" (from the Greek , 'astatos,' meaning 'unstable' for element 85). Metropolis also coined the terms "Monte Carlo" and "MANIAC." The latter was proposed in hope of putting at end to an emerging fad for naming computers with acronyms but, as Metropolis often lamented, it instead had the opposite effect.

Nicholas Constantine Metropolis, one of the pioneers in scientific computing, died in Los Alamos, New Mexico, on 17 October l999.

Jack Dongarra and Francis Sullivan published a list of "The Top Ten Algorithms of the Century." Their list included:

  1. the Monte Carlo method or Metropolis algorithm, devised by John von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam, and Nicholas Metropolis;
  2. the simplex method of linear programming, developed by George Dantzig;
  3. the Krylov Subspace Iteration method, developed by Magnus Hestenes, Eduard Stiefel, and Cornelius Lanczos;
  4. the Householder matrix decomposition, developed by Alston Householder;
  5. the Fortran compiler, developed by a team lead by John Backus;
  6. the QR algorithm for eigenvalue calculation, developed by J Francis;
  7. the Quicksort algorithm, developed by Anthony Hoare;
  8. the Fast Fourier Transform, developed by James Cooley and John Tukey;
  9. the Integer Relation Detection Algorithm, developed by Helaman Ferguson and Rodney Forcade; (given N real values XI, is there a nontrivial set of integer coefficients AI so that sum ( 1 <= I <= N ) AI * XI = 0?
  10. the fast Multipole algorithm, developed by Leslie Greengard and Vladimir Rokhlin; (to calculate gravitational forces in an N-body problem normally requires N^2 calculations. The fast multipole method uses order N calculations, by approximating the effects of groups of distant particles using multipole expansions)
Dongarra and Sullivan,
Top Ten Algorithms of the Century,
Computing in Science and Engineering,
January/February 2000.
Metropolis Photo from http://www.lanl.gov/orgs/pa/News/MetropolisNick.jpeg I do not hold the copyright and therefore cannot grant permission for its reproduction.
More Metropolis Images
http://www.aip.org/history/esva/catalog/esva/Metropolis_Constantine.html AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection
Nick the Greek, from Michael Waterman, SKIING THE SUN, New Mexico Essays (PDF)
The Beginning of the Monte Carlo Method by N. Metropolis, PDF (500 KB)
Comments: Owner of the Monte Carlo "Casino" was until his death the Greek Sir Basil Zaharoff (Basileios Zacharias) (Βασίλειος Ζαχάρωφ ) known as the “mystery man of Europe” (6.10.1849 Mougla Asia Minor- 27.11.1936) one of the richest Arms dealer (Vickers-Amstrong munitions firm, Krupp, Skoda).
See also
Nick the Greek, the gambler , Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman

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