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Wiener, Norbert


WIENER, NORBERT (1894–1964), U.S. mathematician; inventor of the science of cybernetics. Born in Columbia, Missouri, Wiener was a child prodigy. He was the son of Leo *Wiener, historian of Yiddish language, literature, and folklore and professor of Slavic languages, who made incessant intellectual demands on his son (and who did not reveal their Jewishness – a fact discovered by Norbert Wiener only when he was in his teens). Wiener began to read scientific books at four, and by seven was familiar with the theories of natural scientists, such as Darwin, and with psychiatrists such as Charcot and Janet. He entered Tufts University at 11, and obtained his Ph.D. at Harvard University at 18. At Cambridge, England, he studied under such world-famous personalities as the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the mathematician G.H. Hardy. Wiener's main innovation as a mathematician was to develop a mathematics based upon imprecise terms reflecting the irregularities of the physical world. He sought to reduce these random movements to a minimum in order to bring them into harmony. During World War ii, he applied his concepts to work connected with antiaircraft defense, and this led to advances in radar, high-speed electric computation, the automatic factory, and a new science he created called cybernetics, a word he coined from the Greek word for "steersman," meaning the study of control. This followed his attempt as a mathematician to find the basis of the communication of information, and of the control of a system based on such communication. Wiener suggested the use of cybernetics in diagnostic procedures and indicated the similarity between certain types of nervous pathology and servomechanism (goal-directed machines such as guns which correct their own fixing malfunctioning). His book Cybernetics (1948) was a scientific bestseller and transformed him into a public figure as the pioneer of computer development. For the last 17 years of his life he refused to take part in any military research. His book The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) sought to alert the layman to the dangerous social consequences of his theories. He wrote an autobiography in two parts: Ex-Prodigy (1953) and I Am a Mathematician (1956).

[Maurice Goldsmith]

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