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WIENER



Norbert Wiener (1894 1964) was an American mathematician. He was Professor of Mathematics at MIT. A famous child prodigy, Wiener later became an early researcher in stochastic and noise processes, contributing work relevant to electronic engineering, electronic communication, and control systems. Wiener is regarded as the originator of cybernetics, a formalization of the notion of feedback, with many implications for engineering, systems control, computer science, biology, philosophy, and the organization of society.
Wiener was born in Columbia, Missouri, the first child of Leo Wiener and Bertha Kahn, Jews of Polish and German descent, respectively. Norbert Wiener became a famous child prodigy. Leo had educated Norbert at home until 1903, employing teaching methods of his own invention, except for a brief interlude when Norbert was 7 years of age. Earning his living teaching German and Slavic languages, Leo read widely and accumulated a personal library from which the young Norbert benefited greatly. Leo also had ample ability in mathematics, and tutored his son in the subject until he left home. In his autobiography, Norbert described his father as calm and patient, unless he (Norbert) failed to give a correct answer, at which his father would lose his temper. Despite being raised in a Jewish family, he later became an agnostic.
After graduating from Ayer High School in 1906 at 11 years of age, Wiener entered Tufts College. He was awarded a BA in mathematics in 1909 at the age of 14, whereupon he began graduate studies of zoology at Harvard. In 1910 he transferred to Cornell to study philosophy. The next year he returned to Harvard, while still continuing his philosophical studies. Back at Harvard, Wiener became influenced by Edward Vermilye Huntington, whose mathematical interests ranged from axiomatic foundations to engineering problems. Harvard awarded Wiener a Ph.D. in 1912, when he was merely 17 years old, for a dissertation on mathematical logic, supervised by Karl Schmidt, the essential results of which were published as Wiener (1914). In that dissertation, he was the first to state publicly that pairs can be defined in terms of elementary set theory. Hence relations can be defined by set theory, thus the theory of relations does not require any axioms or primitive notions distinct from those of set theory. In 1921, Kazimierz Kuratowski proposed a simplification of Wiener's definition of ordered pairs, and that simplification has been in common use ever since.
In 1914, Wiener traveled to Europe, to be taught by Bertrand Russell and G.H.Hardy at Cambridge University, and by David Hilbert and Edmund Landau at the University of Gottingen. During 191516, he taught philosophy at Harvard, then worked as an engineer for General Electric and wrote for the Encyclopedia Americana. Wiener worked briefly as a journalist for the Boston Herald, where he wrote a feature story on the poor labor conditions for mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but he was fired soon afterwards for his reluctance to write favorable articles about a politician the newspaper's owners sought to promote.
Although Wiener eventually became a staunch pacifist, he eagerly contributed to the war effort in World War I. In 1916, with America's entry into the war drawing closer, Wiener attended a training camp for potential military officers, but failed to earn a commission. One year later Wiener again tried to join the military, but the government again rejected him due to his poor eyesight. In the summer of 1918, Oswald Veblen invited Wiener to work on ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Living and working with other mathematicians strengthened his interest in mathematics. However, Wiener was still eager to serve in uniform, and decided to make one more attempt to enlist, this time as a common soldier. Wiener wrote in a letter to his parents, "I should consider myself a pretty cheap kind of a swine if I were willing to be an officer but unwilling to be a soldier". This time the army accepted Wiener into its ranks and assigned him, by coincidence, to a unit stationed at Aberdeen, Maryland. World War I ended just days after Wiener's return to Aberdeen and Wiener was discharged from the military in February 1919.
Wiener was unable to secure a permanent position at Harvard, a situation he blamed largely on anti-semitism at the university and in particular on the antipathy of Harvard mathematician G.D.Birkhoff. He was also rejected for a position at the University of Melbourne. At W.F.Osgood's suggestion, Wiener became an instructor of mathematics at MIT, where he spent the remainder of his career, becoming promoted eventually to Professor.
In 1926, Wiener returned to Europe as a Guggenheim scholar. He spent most of his time at Gottingen and with Hardy at Cambridge, working on Brownian motion, the Fourier integral, Dirichlet's problem, harmonic analysis, and the Tauberian theorems.
Many tales, perhaps apocryphal, were told of him at MIT, especially concerning his absent-mindedness. It was said that he returned home once to find his house empty. He inquired of a neighborhood girl the reason, and she said that the family had moved elsewhere that day. He thanked her for the information and she replied, "That's why I stayed behind, Daddy!"
During World War II, his work on the automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns caused Wiener to investigate information theory independently of Claude Shannon and to invent the Wiener filter. (To him is due the now standard practice of modeling an information source as a random process.) His anti-aircraft work eventually led him to formulate cybernetics. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wiener was not invited to participate in the Manhattan Project. After the war, his fame helped MIT to recruit a research team in cognitive science, composed of researchers in neuropsychology and the mathematics and biophysics of the nervous system, including Warren Sturgis McCulloch and Walter Pitts. These men later made pioneering contributions to computer science and artificial intelligence. Soon after the group was formed, Wiener suddenly ended all contact with its members, mystifying his colleagues.
Wiener later helped develop the theories of cybernetics, robotics, computer control, and automation. He shared his theories and findings with other researchers, and credited the contributions of others. These included Soviet researchers and their findings. Wiener's acquaintance with them caused him to be regarded with suspicion during the Cold War. He was a strong advocate of automation to improve the standard of living, and to end economic underdevelopment. His ideas became influential in India, whose government he advised during the 1950s.
After the war, Wiener became increasingly concerned with what he believed was political interference with scientific research, and the militarization of science. His article "A Scientist Rebels" for the January 1947 issue of The Atlantic Monthly urged scientists to consider the ethical implications of their work. After the war, he refused to accept any government funding or to work on military projects. The way Wiener's beliefs concerning nuclear weapons and the Cold War contrasted with that of John von Neumann is the major theme of the book John Von Neumann and Norbert Wiener Heims (1980). Wiener was a core participant of the Macy conferences. He died, aged 69, in Stockholm, Sweden.


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Last updated: August 9, 2012