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Norbert Wiener

Norbert WienerBorn: 26-Nov-1894
Birthplace: Columbia, MO
Died: 18-Mar-1964
Location of death: Stockholm, Sweden
Cause of death: Heart Failure

Gender: Male
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Mathematician

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Cybernetics

Norbert Wiener was a child prodigy who entered high school at the age of nine, graduated at eleven, and completed his first college degree at 14. He studied under Bertrand Russell, G. H. Hardy, and David Hilbert, founded the science of cybernetics, and defined the modern scientific notion of feedback. His work provided a theoretical foundation for subsequent advances in computers, automation, and global telecommunications.

In 1922 he developed the Wiener Measure, a rule of probability law for determining the space of continuous functions, and in a pair of papers in 1927 and 1928 he refined the proposal of a fifth dimension in quantum theory. In 1938 he proposed the concept of homogeneous chaos, and in his 1949 book Extrapolation, Interpolation and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series with Engineering Application, Wiener showed how to predict and eliminate perturbative noise.

He coined the term cybernetics in 1948, based on the Greek word kubernetes (the pilot or helmsman of a ship), or more specifically the related term kubernetike (the art of the steersman). To present-day audiences cybernetics brings up images of The Terminator's science fiction monsters, but the word's scientific definition is less frightful: it is the study of communication and control systems in electronic and mechanical devices, and the comparison of those systems to natural and biological systems. Wiener warned of the dangers of golem, a term from Jewish folklore that describes the danger of machinery that, once switched on, cannot be switched off.

He remains unfairly unknown beyond scientific circles, in part because his work cannot be succinctly explained to lay readers, but also because of the intense oddities of his personal life. Throughout his adulthood he was manic depressive, with bursts of aggressive talkatively and extended opposite periods of near-suicidal gloominess. In his latter decades he refused to accept research grants funded by the military and he had little regard for scientists who did, a philosophical stance that left him isolated from increasing numbers of his peers.

His father, Leo Wiener, was the first Jewish professor at Harvard, but he was also domineering and demanding, and his perpetual pressure made the boy's childhood difficult. Norbert Wiener's wife, Margaret Wiener, was a German woman who remained an ardent supporter of the Nazi cause during World War II, and she told him falsely that one of their daughters was a "promiscuous nymphomaniac" who had been seduced by several of Wiener's scientific collaborators. Believing this, he ceased all contact and never again spoke with the men who had been his closest colleagues.

Of his about 250 scientific articles, he wrote sixteen in French and five in German. Adapting his scientific principles to politics, Wiener predicted decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union that USSR-style communism's suppression of negative feedback ensured that system's eventual failure. He also wrote a novel, The Tempter, a fictionalized tale inspired by the facts of how engineer Michael Pupin had stolen and sold the work of Oliver Heaviside.

Father: Leo Wiener (Harvard professor of Slavonic languages)
Mother: Bertha Kahn Wiener
Sister: Constance Wiener
Sister: Bertha Wiener
Wife: Margaret Engemann Wiener (language teacher, m. 1926)
Daughter: Barbara Wiener Raisbeck (engineer, b. 1928)
Daughter: Margaret Wiener-Kennedy (gov't official, b. 1929)

    High School: Ayer High School, Ayer, MA (1906)
    University: BS Mathematics, Tufts University (1909)
    University: Cornell University (attended, 1910-11)
    University: PhD Mathematical Logic, Harvard University (1913)
    Scholar: Mathematics, Cambridge University (1913-15)
    Scholar: University of Göttingen (1914)
    Teacher: Philosophy, Harvard University (1914-15)
    Teacher: Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1919-31)
    Professor: Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1931-60)

    General Electric 1916-17
    Encyclopedia Americana Researcher, 1918-19
    American Mathematical Society
    International Society for the Systems Sciences
    Josiah Macy Foundation
    National Academy of Sciences 1933 (resigned, 1941)
    AMS Bcher Prize 1933
    National Medal of Science 1963
    National Book Award for Science, Philosophy, Religion 1965 for God and Golem, Inc.
    Lunar Crater Wiener
    Heart Attack 1954
    Heart Attack 18-Mar-1964 (fatal)
    Russian Ancestry
    Jewish Ancestry
    Risk Factors: Manic Depression

Author of books:
Fourier Transforms in the Complex Domain (1934, with Raymond E.A.C. Paley)
Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in The Animal and The Machine (1948, non-fiction)
Extrapolation, Interpolation and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series with Engineering Applications (1949, mathematics)
The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1950, non-fiction)
Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (1953, memoir)
I Am a Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy (1956, memoir)
Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory (1958, mathematics)
The Fourier Integral and Its Applications (1959, non-fiction)
The Tempter (1959, novel)
God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges On Religion (1964, non-fiction)
Differential Space, Quantum Systems and Prediction (1966, essays)
Selected Papers of Norbert Wiener (1964)
Collected Works with Commentaries (1976, non-fiction; posthumous)
Generalized Harmonic Analysis and Tauberian Theory (1979, non-fiction; posthumous)
Cybernetics, Science, and Society (1985, non-fiction; posthumous)
Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas (1993, non-fiction; posthumous)


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