“Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions.” (N. Wiener in The Human Use of Human Beings, 1950)
The mathematician Norbert Wiener defined the field of cybernetics – he even invented the word - thereby enabling future scientists to think about how to extend human capabilities by using computer technology. But more about that later.
Norbert Wiener was born on November 26, 1894, in Columbia, Missouri, as the first child of Leo Wiener and Bertha Kahn. Leo was a Russian Jew who would have an enormous influence on his son. The young Norbert was a very precocious child and father Leo, a professor in Slavic Languages at Harvard University, was determined that his son should become a pre-eminent scholar. The young Wiener was brought up in a house of learning and as he stated himself: “I had full liberty to roam in what was the very catholic and miscellaneous library of my father. At one period or other the scientific interests of my father had covered most of the imaginable subjects of study. ... I was an omnivorous reader.” At age seven he went to school and being far ahead in most areas he was immediately put in the third grade. After a short while his teachers discovered his impressive knowledge and after discussing this with his parents, moved him up another year to the fourth grade. Although Wiener was very knowledgeable already, there was a big difference in age with his co-students. Imagine a young boy amidst much older fellow pupils, myopic, with poor physical coordination – some say he was clumsy – but with a brilliant mind, it comes as no surprise that he did not fit into the school system very well. This, combined with his poor eyesight, made his father decide to remove him from school and to educate him at home. One of the areas Wiener had battled with at school was arithmetic and his father, who was well versed in mathematics, taught him to do arithmetic in his head. Wiener proved to be a fast learner and two years later he went back to school. He went to Ayer High School, where he joined in senior third class. Wiener was nine while the students in his class were sixteen. At the age of eleven he graduated from Ayer and entered Tufts College. Three years later he graduated with a degree in mathematics and went to Harvard at age 14. Although he started a graduate study in zoology, he soon abandoned this and switched to philosophy. But soon his love for mathematics made him combine philosophy with mathematics, i.e. mathematical philosophy. He graduated in 1913 and received his Ph.D. in Mathematics with a thesis on mathematical logic. After Harvard Wiener went to Cambridge, England, studying the philosophy of mathematics. He returned to Harvard, a few days before the start of World War I.
In 1917 he was invited to do work on ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland – the place where thirty years later the first electronic computer, the ENIAC, would be installed. There he lived and breathed mathematics and discussed the subject with other mathematicians. Wiener believed that “Mathematics was not only a subject to be done in the study but one to be discussed and lived with.”
After the war, Wiener wanted to join Harvard University again but being of Jewish descent, Harvard declined to offer him a position. He then joined MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where he started lecturing in mathematics. In 1929 he was appointed to Assistant Professor and in 1931 to Professor in Mathematics. He has always stayed loyal to MIT which “gave me the freedom to think.”
During World War II, Wiener worked on a research project at MIT on the automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns and guided missile technology. He studied how a missile changed its flight path through the use of advanced electronics. What intrigued him was the principle of feedback that was used, i.e. the missile gave feedback regarding its position and flight path towards its target. It then received instructions for small adjustments to its flight path in order to further stabilize it and to arrive at its target, etc. This concept of continuous feedback between the missile system and its environment he also found in other systems – where a system could be a plant, an animal, a machine or a human being. This resulted in his 1948 book “Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” in which he coined the word “cybernetics”.
The word “cybernetics” derives from the Greek word kybernetes (steersman). Cybernetics is a science that studies the organization, communication and control in complex systems by using circular (i.e. feedback) mechanisms. Remember that the “complex system” in this definition can be a machine, an animal, a human being, or even an organization or a government.
Romanian cancellation showing Norbert Wiener
together with the Romenian cyberneticist Stefan Odobleja
Other books of interest are his autobiographical “Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth” 1953) and “I Am a Mathematician. The Later Life of an Ex-Prodigy” (1956) and the more philosophical work “God, Golem, Inc. A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion”, published in 1964. His mathematical works include impressive titles like “Extrapolation, Interpolation and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series with Engineering Applications” (1949) and “Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory” (published posthumously in 1966).
Belgium organized a symposium
on railway cybernetics in 1974
Wiener has had a profound impact on cybernetics, robotics, computer science, engineering and artificial intelligence. He saw automation as a means to improve man’s standard of living and address the problem of economic underdevelopment. His work generated the interest and research in extending human capabilities with computer controlled electronic interfaces.
After the war he became more pacifist in his ideas - he denounced the growing military use of mathematics and other sciences and he refused to work on military projects.
In his private live, Wiener preferred living in the country. He had a summer retreat, "Tamarack Cottage", in South Tamworth (New Hampshire) where he often could be found in the attic scribbling on a blackboard. He preferred the quietness.
Wiener retired from MIT in 1960. Following a heart attack, Norbert Wiener died on March 18, 1964, while in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Wiener crater on the far side of the moon was named after him - one of the many ways in which this gifted mathematician has been honored.
© Wobbe Vegter, 2007