Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History
Wiener, Norbert, 1894-1964
|Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), A1909, was a world renowned mathematician and founder of the science of cybernetics. He formulated some of the most important contributions to mathematics in the 20th century. He was a child prodigy who graduated from Tufts in 1909 at the age of fourteen.|
Wiener was born on November 26, 1894, in Columbia, Missouri. He moved with his family to Massachusetts while still an infant, where his father became professor of Slavonic languages and literature at Harvard University. His father personally took charge of his son's education, and Wiener did not attend school until attending the high school in Ayer, Massachusetts, near his family's home in the rural town of Harvard, Massachusetts.
Wiener enrolled at Tufts in 1906 and earned his degree in mathematics in 1909, at which point he went on to Harvard to study zoology. However, when he found that laboratory work was not his strength, he changed his course of study to philosophy, at his father's suggestion. He completed a Ph. D. in the subject at Harvard in 1913, at age 18, with a dissertation in mathematical logic.
Wiener then travelled abroad to the universities of Cambridge and Gottingen, where he studies under Bertrand Russell and David Hilbert, respectively. He published his first paper on mathematics in the Messenger of Mathematics in 1913 just as World War I broke out. He tried to enlist but was rejected for poor eyesight.
After working at a number of different jobs for several years, Wiener was hired as an instructor in the mathematics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The department at the time had no tradition of scholarship or research, but Wiener directed the growth of the program, eventually becoming one of the most famous members of the institution's faculty.
During those years Wiener did highly innovative and fundamental work on what is now called a stochastic process and, in particular, on the theory of Brownian motionthat is, the construction of a rigorous mathematical description of a physical process that is subject to random changeand on generalized harmonic analysisthat is, the analysis of functions into periodic components and the generalizations of such an analysisas well as significant work on other problems of mathematical analysis. From a long list of published works, three papers stand out: "Differential Space," Journal of Mathematics and Physics, 58:131-174 (1923); "Generalized Harmonic Analysis," Acta Mathematica, 55:117-258 (1930); and "Tauberian Theorems," Annals of Mathematics, 33:1-100 (1932). In 1933 Wiener was elected to the National Academy of Science but soon resigned, repelled by some of the aspects of institutionalized science he encountered in the Academy. In the same year, he shared the Bôcher Prize, offered every five years by the American Mathematical Society, and was honoured by the society by being invited to present the Colloquium Lectures, published (1934) as Fourier Transforms in the Complex Domain, with Raymond E.A.C. Paley (American Mathematical Society Colloquium Publications, vol. 19). Much of the work appearing in this volume had been done in collaboration with Paley, who was killed a year before the book was finished.
During World War II Wiener worked on gunfire control, the problem of pointing a gun to fire at a moving target. The ideas that evolved led to Extrapolation, Interpolation, and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series (1949), which first appeared as a classified report and established Wiener as a codiscoverer, with the Russian mathematician A.N. Kolmogorov, of the theory on the prediction of stationary time series. It introduced certain statistical methods into control and communications engineering and exerted great influence in these areas. This work also led him to formulate the concept of cybernetics.
In 1948 his book Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine appeared. For a scientific book it was extremely popular, and Wiener became known in a much broader scientific community. Cybernetics isinterdisciplinary in nature; based on common relationships between humans and machines, it is used today in control theory, automation theory, and computer programs to reduce many time-consuming computations and decision-making processes formerly done by human beings. Wiener worked at cybernetics, philosophized about it, and propagandized for it the rest of his life, all the while keeping up his research in other areas of mathematics.
After the war Wiener continued to contribute new ideas to widely divergent subjects, including mathematical prediction theory and quantum theory, providing the latter a possible solution to a difficulty that had been debated by the physicists Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Applying his theoretical description of Brownian movement to quantum phenomena, he showed how quantum theory, to the extent that it is based on probability, is consistent with other branches of science. A few weeks before his death, Wiener was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Wiener died on March 18, 1964, in Stockholm, Sweden.