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Norbert Wiener

May 12, 2014

Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894 - March 18, 1964) was a prominent American mathematician, a professor of mathematics at MIT, and also a philosopher. Wiener was a child prodigy, so it was not unexpected that he became the sort of absent-minded professor we see stereotyped in the cinema. Norbert Wiener

Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894 - March 18, 1964)

Wiener was the founder of the interdisciplinary field of cybernetics.

(Photo by Konrad Jacobs, modified for artistic effect, via Wikimedia Commons.)

There are quite a few Wiener anecdotes, but my favorite of these was the one recalled by fellow mathematician, Howard Eves. Fellow IEEE member, Shubhendu Trivedi, published a nice version of this anecdote on his blog, and he's given me permission to reprint it, as follows:[1]
"Norbert Wiener was renowned for his absent-mindedness. When he and his family moved from Cambridge to Newton, his wife, knowing that he would be of absolutely no help, packed him off to MIT while she directed the move. Since she was certain that he would forget that they had moved and where they had moved to, she wrote down the new address on a piece of paper, and gave it to him. Naturally, in the course of the day, some insight occurred to him. He reached in his pocket, found a piece of paper on which he furiously scribbled some notes, thought it over, decided there was a fallacy in his idea, and threw the piece of paper away in disgust."

"At the end of the day he went home – to the old address in Cambridge, of course. When he got there, he realized that they had moved, that he had no idea where they had moved to, and that the piece of paper with the address was long gone. Fortunately inspiration struck. There was a young girl on the street and he conceived the idea of asking her where he had moved to, saying, “Excuse me, perhaps you know me. I'm Norbert Wiener and we've just moved. Would you know where we've moved to?” To which the young girl replied, 'Yes Daddy, Mommy thought you would forget.'"
Pure mathematicians are remembered only among their math colleagues, but applied mathematicians are also known to many scientists and engineers. Historically, we rely on the applied math of such luminaries such as Leonhard Euler (1707 - 1783), who gave us Euler–Bernoulli beam theory, and the Euler equations of inviscid flow. Of course, Euler is just one example of many.

Norbert Wiener's work was applied to electrical engineering, most notably to control systems. Wiener is considered to be the founder of the field of cybernetics, which is interdisciplinary between electrical engineering, computer science, and biology. The word, cybernetics, from the Greek, κυβερνητης, "steersman," was coined by Wiener in 1948.

The cyborg, a cybernetic human-machine hybrid, is becoming more of a reality as we develop mechanical body parts. In 2004, I wrote an article about cybernetics for a general interest magazine.[2] The article reviewed Wiener's contributions, and a local copy is available in the references.[2]

Cover of Tom Swift and his Giant Telescope (1939)

The cover of the 1939 book, Tom Swift and his Giant Telescope, by Victor Appleton.

One way to interest boys in science is to combine it with another of their interests.

Thus we have the 1991 book, Tom Swift and the Cyborg Kickboxer.

(Wikimedia Commons image, modified for artistic effect.)

Wiener's father taught him at home until age seven, and he was able to enter Tufts College at age eleven, graduating with an undergraduate degree in mathematics at age 14. Starting in graduate school in zoology at Harvard, he transferred to Cornell University in 1910 to study philosophy, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1912 at age 17 with a dissertation on mathematical logic.

As a post-doc, Wiener studied in Europe under such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, G. H. Hardy and David Hilbert. On his return to the US, Wiener briefly taught philosophy at Harvard, worked as an engineer at General Electric, and as an author and journalist. Although he applied for a permanent position at Harvard, he was rejected, perhaps because of antisemitism, but more likely because of the animosity of mathematician, George D. Birkhoff, who was a professor there. Birkhoff was president of the American Mathematical Society from 1925–1926.

Wiener finally found his place at MIT, first becoming an instructor in mathematics and eventually a full professor. His talents were well suited for an engineering school, where he engaged in such activities as the development of control systems for automated anti-aircraft batteries. This entrée into control systems, along with his diverse background, led to his development of the cybernetics concept.

Schematic of a PID loop

Schematic of a proportional-integral-differential (PID) control loop, a versatile control loop concept employed in many systems. (Click for a larger view. Rendered by the author using Inkscape.)

I've written a few articles about Brownian motion, the most recent of which is Close Observation of Brownian Motion, April 28, 2014. Wiener had an interest in the mathematics of Brownian motion, and he proved that a Brownian path is non-differentiable. The physical basis of this is that particles in solution move in discrete bumps and not in a continuous motion. The ideal case of one-dimensional Brownian motion is called a Wiener process, and this concept was incorporated into the Black–Scholes-Merton option pricing model.

In his 1950 book, "The Human Use of Human Beings," Wiener envisioned a utopia in which automation would relieve humanity of manual labor to allow more creative pursuits. Sixty years later, we have much automation, but income inequality rather than utopia. Wiener died in Stockholm, Sweden, at age 69.

The crater, Wiener, on the far side of the Moon is named after him. I've always believed in "Wiener's Law of Libraries," "There are no answers, only cross references". The IEEE is sponsoring a conference, Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century, commemorating Norbert Wiener. The conference will be held on June 24-26, 2014, in Boston, notable for a scheduled appearance by cryptographer and security expert, Bruce Schneier.[3]


  1. Shubhendu Trivedi, "An Anecdote to Norbert Wiener," January 25, 2008.
  2. D.M. Gualtieri, Cyborgs and Atomic Microscopes, Phi Kappa Phi Forum, vol. 84, no. 2 (Spring 2004), pp. 6-7. A local PDF copy can be found here.
  3. Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century - IEEE 2014 Conference Web Site.

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