Norbert Wiener

(1894—1964) American mathematician

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US mathematician, the founder of cybernetics.

The son of a Harvard professor of Slavonic languages and literature, Wiener was born in Columbia, Montana. A mathematical infant prodigy, he graduated from Tufts at the age of fourteen and went on to gain his Harvard PhD at eighteen. He completed his education in Europe, studying under Bertrand Russell in Cambridge and David Hilbert in Göttingen. On his return to the USA, however, he experienced considerable difficulty in finding a job. It was not until 1919, with the wartime shortage of staff, that he obtained an appointment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he prudently remained for the rest of his career. Wiener worked initially on mathematical logic, later turning to the theory of random processes, but he is best known for his work on harmonic analysis and Fourier transforms.

This work, carried out in the 1920s and 1930s, came to be overshadowed in the 1940s by his growing interest in ‘the science of control and communication in the animal and machine’, a subject for which he coined the name ‘cybernetics’. His book Cybernetics (1948) was somewhat ahead of its time and in some respects gave the impression of a writer seeking a subject rather than of one presenting a thoroughly worked out thesis. Nevertheless it managed to introduce to an eager public a whole range of new concepts. Such words as ‘homeostasis’, ‘negative feedback’, and ‘cybernetics’ itself rapidly became part of the language and prepared the way for the computer revolution, which in 1948 still lay a generation ahead. Wiener has left a fascinating account of his strange childhood in his first volume of autobiography, Ex-Prodigy (1953). The second volume, I Am a Mathematician, is of less interest.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.