Childhood & Early Life
Born on November 26, 1894, in Columbia, Missouri, USA, Norbert Wiener was the eldest child of Jewish immigrants Leo Wiener and Bertha Kahn. His father was a well-read man and a professional tutor of German and Slavic languages. It was he who provided Norbert with his initial education. In later years, Wiener turned an agnostic.
He obtained his high-school diploma from Ayer High School in 1906 when he was only 11 years old. He enrolled at Tufts College from where he earned his BA in mathematics in 1909. Wiener then started attending Harvard for graduate studies in zoology but left a year later and joined Cornell for a philosophy degree, which he received in 1911.
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In 1912, Norbert Wiener came back to Harvard to pursue his philosophical studies further. In June 1913, at the age of 18, he obtained his PhD degree after submitting his thesis on mathematical logic.
In this thesis, he discussed the groundbreaking concept that ordered pairs can be understood through elementary set theory. This means that relations can be understood by set theory, and so the theory of relations does not need any axioms or primitive concepts that are distinguishable from those of set theory.
In 1914, Norbert Wiener visited Europe, where he attended Bertrand Russell and G. H. Hardy’s classes at Cambridge University. He also received lessons from David Hilbert and Edmund Landau at the University of Göttingen.
After returning to US, he joined Harvard’s faculty as a philosophy teacher in 1915. In the following year, he became an engineer at General Electric and served as a writer for the ‘Encyclopedia Americana.’ For a short while, he also worked as a journalist for the ‘Boston Herald.’
Despite being an ardent pacifist, he sought to get involved in the war effort in World War I. His attempts to earn commission were rejected twice by the military before he was allowed to enlist in the US Army and was dispatched to serve with a unit posted in Aberdeen, Maryland.
He also got the opportunity to collaborate with other mathematicians on ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. In February 1919, Wiener received his discharge papers.
He failed to find a permanent position in Harvard’s faculty and accused the university board of anti-Semitism. His application to join the University of Melbourne was rebuffed as well.
Eventually, on the advice of W. F. Osgood, he accepted the position of mathematics instructor at MIT. For the rest of his career, he was associated with the institution and later rose to the rank of a professor.
As a Guggenheim scholar, Norbert Wiener went back to Europe in 1926. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Wiener joined the China Aid Society and the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars. He campaigned for the employments of scholars like Yuk-Wing Lee and Antoni Zygmund who did not have jobs at the time.
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Wiener got involved in the war effort in World War II as well. He conducted research on the problem of aiming gunfire at a moving target.
He wrote down his findings in ‘Extrapolation, Interpolation, and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series’ (1949), which was initially put out as a classified report. Furthermore, the report brought him recognition as a co-originator, along with the Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov, of the concept of the prediction of stationary time series.
In 1948, Norbert Wiener released the book ‘Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine’. Despite being a non-fictional work on science, it garnered much popularity, and because of it, Wiener became a celebrity in the scientific community.
In essence, cybernetics is an interdisciplinary method of understanding various aspects of regulatory systems, including their structures, limitations, and capabilities. According to Wiener, cybernetics is "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine."
For the remainder of his life, Wiener developed cybernetics, built a working philosophy around it, and popularised it, while simultaneously conducting research in other matters as well.
In the years after the war, Norbert Wiener continued introducing new concepts in subjects like mathematical prediction theory and quantum theory. He came up with a likely answer to a quantum theory problem that had been the subject of much debate between physicists Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Wiener used his theoretical description of Brownian motion to quantum phenomena to demonstrate the similarities between quantum science and other branches of science.
Wiener authored numerous other works. He dealt with the implications of mathematics for public and private affairs in ‘The Human Use of Human Beings’ (revised edition 1954) and ‘God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion. (1964). He also put out two autobiographical books, 'Ex-Prodigy' (1953) and 'I Am a Mathematician' (1956).
Norbert Wiener received the Bôcher Memorial Prize in 1933 and the National Medal of Science in 1963.
In 1965, he became a posthumous recipient of the US National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion for ‘God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion’.
Several awards that are annually distributed bear his name, including the Norbert Wiener Prize in Applied Mathematics and Norbert Wiener Award for Social and Professional Responsibility.
There is a crater on the far side of the moon which is named “Wiener”.
Death & Legacy
Norbert Wiener passed away following a heart attack on March 18, 1964, in Stockholm, Sweden. He was 69 years old at the time. He is interred at Vittum Hill Cemetery Sandwich, Carroll County, New Hampshire, USA. His wife, who died in November 1989, was buried beside him.
Wiener is widely regarded as the father of cybernetics. His accomplishments in other scientific fields are equally astronomical. However, some scholars and admirers of Wiener believe that he did not receive credits for many ideas either due to being drastically ahead of his time or due to his willingness to reveal his discoveries to his less generous colleagues and competitors, who later exploited them for personal gain.