Norbert Wiener

From Academic Kids

Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894 - March 18, 1964) was an American mathematician, known as the founder of cybernetics. He created the term in his book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (MIT Press, 1948), widely recognized as one of the most important books of contemporary scientific thinking. Additionally, he is thought to be the first American-born and American-trained mathematician able to spar intellectually with anything or anyone Europe and the historic bastions of mathematics could proffer. His period thus represents a watershed in American mathematics.

Norbert Wiener
Norbert Wiener


He was born in Columbia, Missouri, the first child of Leo and Bertha Wiener. Leo was an instructor in Slavic Languages at Harvard who used his own high-pressure methods to educate Norbert at home until he was seven; he entered school only briefly before resuming the majority of his studies at home. Between his father's tutelage and his own abilities, Wiener became a child prodigy. In 1903 he returned to school, graduating from Ayer High School in 1906.

In September 1906, aged eleven, he entered Tufts College to study mathematics. He received his bachelor's degree from Tufts in 1909 and entered Harvard. At Harvard he studied zoology but in 1910 he transferred to Cornell to begin graduate studies in philosophy, returning to Harvard the next year to continue his philosophy studies. Wiener received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1912 at age 18, for a dissertation on mathematical logic.

From Harvard he went to Cambridge, England and studied under Bertrand Russell and G. H. Hardy. In 1914 he studied at Gttingen, Germany under David Hilbert and Edmund Landau. He then returned to Cambridge and then back to the USA. In 1915-16 he taught philosophy courses at Harvard, worked for General Electric and then Encyclopedia Americana before working on ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He remained in Maryland until the end of the war, when he took up a post as instructor in mathematics at MIT (after being rejected for a position at the University of Melbourne). Wiener was known among the students for his poor lecture style, his jokes, and his absent-mindedness. He was known to be hypersensitive to criticism, and subject to fits of depression.

While working at MIT he frequently travelled to Europe. In 1926 he married a German immigrant named Margaret Engemann, with whom he would have two daughters, and then returned to Europe as a Guggenheim scholar. He spent most of his time at Gttingen or with Hardy at Cambridge, working on Brownian motion, the Fourier integral, Dirichlet's problem, harmonic analysis and Tauberian theorems among other problems.

During World War II his work on gunnery control encouraged him to synthesize his interests in communication theory into cybernetics. After the war, his prominence guaranteed him enough clout to arrange for some of the brightest young researchers in artificial intelligence, computer science and neuropsychology, including Warren Sturgis McCulloch and Walter Pitts, to join him at MIT; then, suddenly and inexplicably, he broke off all contact with the members of this painstakingly assembled research team. Speculation still flourishes as to the reasons why; whether they were professional, or related to his hypersensitive personality. Whatever the reason, it led to the premature end of one of the most promising scientific collaborative research teams of the era.

Nevertheless, Wiener went on himself to break new ground in cybernetics, robotics, computer control, and automation. He remained generous with his research, freely sharing his theories and findings as well as credit for his work. Unfortunately this led to suspicion during the Cold War era, as his equal support of researchers in the Soviet Union raised scrutiny.

He died in 1964 in Stockholm, Sweden, at age 69.


1. Wiener was quite short, five foot even, in fact. He was also given to the kind of absent-mindedness for which academics are known. MIT corridors have, or at least used to have, wainscoting, that is, a strip of wood with a moulded groove in it running along a wall about three and a half feet off the ground. The nominal purpose of this is to prevent chair backs from scratching the paint on walls and to provide a boundary between the darker shade which the lower part of walls are usually painted and the lighter shade above. It was Wiener's custom to stick his finger in this groove, close his eyes, lower his head in thought and walk down a corridor, guided by the wainscoting. Professors were told to close their classroom doors or Wiener would be apt to follow the corridor wainscoting to the door jamb of the classroom and pick up the trail of the wainscoting on the inside of the classroom, following it around the room until it led him back to the corridor.

2. During one of these trips down the hallway, Wiener was interrupted by several of his students who talked to him for several minutes about what they were working on. After the conversation had ended, Wiener asked one of them "Could you please tell me, in which direction was I travelling when you stopped me?" One of them replied, somewhat confusedly, "You were coming from over there [gesturing] this way [gesturing]." Wiener replied, "Ah, then it is likely that I have already had lunch. Thank you." and continued down the hallway to his office.

3. Being at a total loss, and having exhausted all other sources of resolution, a young graduate student came to Full Professor Doctor Norbert Wiener's office one day with a seemingly intractable differential equation, No. 27 from a textbook. The student asked Wiener if he could help him with it. Wiener looked at the equation for a moment, sat back in his chair, and tilted his head to point it at the ceiling. He silently stayed that way for perhaps twenty or thirty seconds. He then leaned forward and wrote down the longish solution on a legal pad, and looked at the student expectantly. After an awkward moment the student said "Dr. Wiener, I'm sorry, but I still can't see how you've derived this." Wiener looked confused for a moment, and then relaxed. He looked at the equation for a moment, sat back in his chair, and tilted his head to point it at the ceiling. He silently stayed that way for perhaps forty or fifty seconds. He then leaned forward and wrote down the longish solution on a legal pad, and looked at the student expectantly. After an even more awkward moment, the student said "Dr. Wiener, I'm very sorry, but I still don't see it." Wiener replied in as annoyed a voice as he ever expressed, "What do you want, I've just done it two different ways!"


Wiener won the Bcher Prize in 1933 and the National Medal of Science in 1964, shortly before his death.

The Norbert Wiener Prize in Applied Mathematics was endowed in 1967 in honor of Norbert Wiener by MIT's mathematics department and is provided jointly by the American Mathematical Society and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

The Norbert Wiener Award for Social and Professional Responsibility awarded annually by CPSR, was established in 1987 in honor of Norbert Wiener to recognize contributions by computer professionals to socially responsible use of computers.


Published works include The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), Ex-Prodigy (1953), I am a Mathematician (1956), Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory (1958), and God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1964).

A brief profile of Dr. Wiener is given in The Observer newspaper, Sunday, 28 January 1951.

External link

de:Norbert Wiener eo:Norbert WIENER es:Norbert Wiener fr:Norbert Wiener he:נורברט וינר pl:Norbert Wiener ru:Винер, Норберт sk:Norbert Wiener


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