1894: Norbert Wiener is born in Columbia, Missouri. A child prodigy, he goes on to become one of the 20th century’s most famous mathematicians and the founder of the discipline of cybernetics, the study of self-regulating systems.
Norbert’s father, Leo Wiener, was a lecturer (and later professor) of Slavic languages at Harvard University, where the family moved shortly after Norbert’s birth. Leo Wiener’s interests, however, were wide-ranging. Leo educated his son at home according to his own eclectic (and harsh) methods, allowing young Norbert full access to his diverse library. The precocious Norbert showed an early aptitude for languages, mathematics and logic although he later admitted that basic arithmetic caused him trouble.
Wiener graduated from high school and entered Tufts University at age 11. He graduated from Tufts at 14 and then earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard at age 18 with a dissertation on mathematical logic.
Wiener continued his studies of mathematics and philosophy at England’s Cambridge University, studying with Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Josiah Royce, George Santayana and G.H. Hardy, and making the acquaintance of the poet (and fellow Missourian) T.S. Eliot.
Rebuffed from a teaching appointment at Harvard because he was Jewish (despite his father’s having been a professor there), Wiener joined the mathematics faculty across town at MIT in 1919. He remained there for a remarkably productive 41 years.
Within a decade of his MIT appointment, Wiener made several enormous contributions to mathematics, including a mathematical explanation of Brownian motion (the random movement of particles in a fluid), a problem Einstein had first explained in terms of the movements of molecules in 1905. Wiener’s discovery led to modern probability theory and has implications in understanding many situations where countless tiny inputs produce a single output, from the movements of the Dow Jones averages to the distortions that a noisy line introduces in an electronic signal.
Unlike some mathematicians, Wiener was sympathetic to the engineering applications of his work and focused much attention on providing mathematical foundations to engineering problems, including wave-form analysis, signal theory and noise filtering. He worked on ballistics computations during World War I and on techniques for automatically aiming anti-aircraft guns in World War II.
That latter work led Wiener to a theory of cybernetics, also known as systems theory. Cybernetics is not so much a defined discipline as an interdisciplinary approach to the study of complex systems and how they regulate themselves to remain in equilibrium or on target toward a defined goal. A key notion of cybernetics is the feedback principle, whereby a system constantly adjusts itself based on feedback from the environment and from its prior adjustments. Wiener noticed that this principle is active not only in automation, but also in living creatures.
The word cybernetics derives from the Greek work kybernetes, meaning “helmsman.” The verb kybernan, to steer or govern, also gives us (through Latin) words like government, governor and gubernatorial. Cybernetics itself spawned a series of other neologisms, including cyborg, cyberspace, cyberpunk, cybercash, cyberculture, cybersex, and just plain cyber.
Cybernetic theory has been applied to the understanding of biological systems (organisms), ecological systems, neuroscience, society, economics and more, but has arguably had its greatest impact in computers. Wiener’s work had a powerful influence on later generations of computer scientists and robotics engineers, including J.C.R. Licklider, a key figure in the early development of the internet.
Despite his fascination with cybernetics and robotics, Wiener was also a critic of automation, warning that it would lead to widespread unemployment. In later years, he also feared that the increasing power of computers would some day lead to a devaluing of human intellect.
Wiener achieved so much fame during his lifetime that he was widely recognized beyond academia, and his likeness was even used on billboards. The quintessential absent-minded professor, he was a cheerful and lively conversationalist but left something to be desired as a lecturer. His discoveries put MIT on the map as a first-rate mathematics institution, and his personality and interdisciplinary way of working helped establish MIT’s distinctively collaborative culture.
He retired from MIT in 1960, and President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the National Medal of Science in 1964.
Wiener died just a few weeks later, in Stockholm, on March 18, 1964. An obituary for Wiener in Time attributed the following “gospel” to the pioneering mathematician and humanist:
“Render unto man the things that are man’s, and unto the computer only the things that are the computer’s.”
Sources: International Society for Systems Sciences biography, the American Mathematical Society biography (.pdf), the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive and Tufts University, others.
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