## Norbert Wiener (1894--1964)

*11 Apr 2022 12:30*

#### 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.

See also: Control Theory; Filtering and State Estimation; Time Series

- Recommended, big picture:
- Heims, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death [By now a classic work, but really very horribly biased against von Neumann]
- Arturo Rosenblueth, NW and Julian Bigelow, "Behavior, Purpose and
Teleology", Philosophy of Science
**10**(1943): 18--24 - Stephen Toulmin, "The Importance of Norbert Wiener", New York Review of Books 24 September 1964
- NW
- The Human Use of Human Beings; Cybernetics and Society [His own math-free popularization of Cybernetics, and its implications for politics and society.]
- God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion

- Recommended, close-ups or more technical (very misc.):
- Peter Fishburn and Bernard Monjardet, "Norbert Wiener on the theory of measurement, 1914, 1915, 1921", Journal of Mathematical Psychology
**36**(1992): 165--184 [Comments under Measurement] - P. Masani, "Wiener's contributions to generalized harmonic analysis, prediction theory and filter theory", Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society
**72**(1966): 73--125 [Part of a special issue in memory of Wiener, now all open access] - Arturo Rosenblueth and NW
- "The Role of Models
in Science", Philosophy of Science
**12**(1945): 316--321 [Annotating this is proving to be an interesting project] - "Purposeful and Non-Purposeful Behavior", Philosophy
of Science
**17**(1950): 318--326

- "The Role of Models
in Science", Philosophy of Science
- NW
- Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine [You need good math to get all of it. What? You find this unreasonable? Read his introduction.]
- Ex-Prodigy and I Am a Mathematician [His two auto-biographical volumes, now (2018) re-published as A Life in Cybernetics]
- Extrapolation, Interpolation and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series [Read the appendices first.]
- Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas
- "A new theory of measurement: A study in the logic of mathematics", Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society
**19**(1919): 181--205 [But really, read Fishburn and Monjardet instead] - Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory [Statistics of transducers]
- "Nonlinear prediction and dynamics", Proceedings of the Third Berkeley Symposium on Mathematical Statistics and Probability (1956), vol. 3, pp. 247--252
- Selected Papers [Gives a good feel for the range of his mathematical work]
- The Fourier Integral and Certain of Its Applications

- Modesty forbids me to recommend:
- The lectures on optimal linear prediction and filtering for my class on "Data over Space and Time" are an attempt to expound Wiener's theory of "extrapolation, interpolation and smoothing" to undergrads, including some of the historical background

- Not recommended:
- NW
- The Tempter [His one attempt at a novel; scientist fiction, or rather engineer fiction. It's earnest, but really pretty bad.]

- To read:
- Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics [Thanks to R. C. Williamson for the pointer]
- Umberto Eco The Open Work
- Peter Galison, "The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision", Critical Inquiry
**21**(1994): 228--266 - David Jerison, I. M. Singer, Daniel W. Stroock (eds.), The Legacy of Norbert Wiener: a Centennial Symposium in Honor of the 100th anniversary of Norbert Wiener's birth
- Ronald R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment [Review by David Auerbach]
- Persi Masani, Norbert Wiener [Scientific biography]
- V. Mandrekar and P. Masani (eds.), Proceedings of the Norbert Wiener Centenary Congress, 1994
- Leone Montagnini, Harmonies of Disorder: Norbert Wiener: A Mathematician-Philosopher of Our Time [I am enjoying this so far, but I'm only 1/3 of the way through]
- NW
- Generalized Harmonic Analysis