Norbert Wiener (1894--1964)

16 May 2024 14:46

Largely drafted in the late 1990s

A very carefully brought up young man. His father, Leo Wiener, was a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Harvard, who had pronounced and peculiar views on education, and put them into effect on young Norbert. (Wiener père also had a crackpot theory about the African discovery of American c. 1000 A.D., but that's another story.) The net effect of these practices was that Norbert got his Bachelor's at the age of 14, and his Ph.D. (from --- where else? --- Harvard, in mathematical philosophy) at the age of 18, at which point he headed to Europe to study at Göttingen and Cambridge (under Russell). After various peregrinations he settled at the math department of MIT, where he did lots of good work on algebra and measures, at last finding his true home in stochastic processes and their applications to time series and the foundations of statistical mechanics.

In his younger years, he was (by his own account) a barely-ambulatory bundle of neuroses, and insufferable; he improved with age, to the point of being merely vain and arrogant. In all fairness, he had a lot to be arrogant about: in addition to his mathematics, he was one of the founders of cybernetics, and the man who coined the word (from the Greek kubernetes, steersman, whence also "governor"). He defined it as "the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine," and thought it was basically about information theory and feedback, and how animals and machines manage to do things; and he warned, as explicitly as possible, against using it for handwaving fluff in social science or philosophy. (These warnings were, naturally, ignored; but that is also another story.) He realized, of course, that understanding that would lead to better automatic machinery, with profound but unpredictable consequences, and he wrote a lot to try and make people think about them. (They didn't, but that's yet another story.) He was less than entirely successful as a prophet --- for instance, automation has not yet resulted in mass unemployment --- but nobody is or was, and his heart at least was in the right place.