This article was first published in the newsletter (February) of IEEE 2014 Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century, Boston (USA). Read newsletter here.
This article was also cited by Jim Siegelman, journalist and author of several books which includes the book on Norbert Wiener, during his keynote address at the Boston Conference in June, 2014
How many times have we heard this ‘we are living in the age of information’? Many a times, you would listen ‘Hey, if you have information in this era of cyber world, you are the king. But how many of us really know about the original king of ‘information? Probably, the history needs to be kinder enough to this genius. Whatever is the reason for not having a Nobel Prize for mathematics, the fact remains that Norbert Wiener, one of the greatest mathematicians of all times, would have been the perfect recipient of one such prize. While reading New York Times recently, I came across this article on Norbert Wiener. The author mentions that a truly, famous scientist needs to have a single hit, like the Grammy’s or Oscars. If we talk of the research and science fraternity, it could be like Einstein being synonymous with theory of relativity, Newton attached with gravitational or the Niels Bohr’s theory of atom. And then I wondered, isn’t Wiener synonymous with cybernetics or Information?
Clive Thompson mentions in his NY Times article, that there is a different category of scientist “who never breaks through, usually because while his discovery is revolutionary it’s also maddeningly hard to summarize in a simple sentence or two. He never produces a catchy hit single. He’s more like a back-room influencer: his work inspires dozens of other innovators who absorb the idea, produce more easily comprehensible innovations and become more famous than their mentor could have dreamed.” Incidentally, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman titled their book as ‘Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics‘, which probably hints at the stark reality that the scientific community owe a lot to Wiener and he is still due for his name in the annals of history.
Norbert Wiener may be a figure of extreme sorts. On one hand, he was a genius par excellence, a great mathematician, who contributed in the areas of electrical engineering, physics and biophysics. Otherwise how would you explain a man who started his college at the age of 11 and successfully completed his PhD from Harvard when he was only 18. He had once said, with disappointment writ large on his face that his father spoke seventeen languages fluently but he spoke only twelve. On the other extreme, he was an absent-minded, heavy built, professor, who it seems, forgot where his new house was. Once his memory failed him, it is said, and he did not remember that he came all the way to the conference, driving his own car and hence returned back in a bus. It seems in the morning when he could not locate his car in his garage, he complained to the police that someone had stolen his car. There are numerous such interesting anecdotes told by his students and colleagues. But whatever be the case, it is more important today than ever that the current world, growing and thriving on the over-dose of information should not forget the contributions of this 300 pound plus mathematician who regularly puffed his cigar at an angle of 45 degrees to the ground.
Not accepting any research funding from the military establishments and participating in those has often been cited as the reason for his poor and often no positioning in the history. He was not invited to participate in the Manhattan project which ultimately created the atomic bombs. His good relationship with researchers from erstwhile Soviet Union was always suspected during the Cold War era. He often voiced his concerns over the interference of the political establishments in the research works and in the application of science and technology to wage wars and develop weapons of mass destruction.
Norbert Wiener was an interesting figure. And in the 21st century, it is more than relevant to bestow what has been long overdue to him. Let us give him his Grammy. To conclude, I would like to quote one of the songs of Brian Eno, an English composer, musician, and singer. “Although variety’s the spice of life / A steady rhythm is the source / Simplicity’s the crucial thing / Systemically of course (work it all out like Norbert Wiener)”.
Did you know about Wiener? Share with us about your piece of information on Wiener and Cybernetics. Do let me know if you will be interested to know more about Wiener and his works on Cybernetics. Also, visit conference website here.
Read about my experience at SEPG (Software Excellence Process Group) Europe Conference 2012, Madrid (Spain), conducted by Carnegie Mellon University.