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Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener The Father of Cybernetics Paperback – August 29, 2006
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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"A fascinating account of how a personal crisis can destroy a scientific revolution." -- New York Times Book Review
"Reading about his [Norbert Wiener] traumatic experiences makes unpacking the mechanics of electronic computing even more worthwhile." -- Wired Magazine
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When I starts as navigation officer in 1960, the information and aromatic age had started.
The celestial navigation which we learned in European schools, war already obsolete.
The US Hydrographic office has issued new tables HO 214 for Sun and HO 249 for stars. You no longer had to calculate with logarithms for an hours to get a position, it only took few minutes with the new tables. The Radar was there and hydraulic power opened and closed hatches. Later came the GPS. And then the old navigation disappeared Ships crews could be reduced 60 %
In Iceland Cybernetics have arrived to the fishing fleet and fish processing plants and much reduced manpower needed. Norbert was right in his forecast of changes and nobody complained.
The internet changed all our live, we did not longer need the post office and we can do our own banking work in the office or at home and that is all very good, the arrival of the Smart Phone and smart computers is another thing. Today a 3 year old is not satisfied if he has not got a Smart Phone to play war games.
We really do not know what this new smart age will lead the younger generations, but it is not to promising.
Conway and Siegelman's account is largely chronological, and makes use of interviews with Wiener's daughters and dozens of his former colleagues. I will give a brief overview to give some sense of how intriguing and eclectic the life of "The Elephant's Child" really was. Leo Wiener was born in Bialystok, Poland, and as a Tolstoyan (and child prodigy himself), set out to found a vegetarian socialist commune in Belize. Somehow he was stranded in New Orleans, and made his way to Columbia Missouri where he would end up teaching the dozens of languages he knew at the University of Missouri. It was in Columbia that Norbert was born (named after a Browning character), and would find himself subjected to Leo's educational training of "military precision and drill sergeant demeanour". When Leo moved to Harvard, the young prodigy Norbert gained national media attention as "The Most Remarkable Boy in the world". Norbert would later detail his bitter feelings towards this upbringing in 'Ex-Prodigy' (which he actually wished to name 'Bent Twig').
The young Norbert was interested in languages, the tales of Kipling and the Arabian nights, the biology of Darwin, Huxley, and Haeckel, and especially mathematics. In his teenage years he would be deeply influenced by Harvard biologist Walter Cannon, whose work on homeostasis would be foundational to Wiener's cybernetics. As he studied philosophy, other Harvard influences were George Santayana, and to a lesser extent William James. Wiener would write his dissertation on the Principia, and head to Cambridge to study under Bertrand Russell, which would be hugely influential in a negative way: "I feel a detestation for the man... His type of mathematical analysis he applies as a sort of Procrustean bed to the facts". Wiener had more encouraging relations with Hardy, with whom he learned analysis, and in Germany with David Hilbert, under whom he studied differential equations. He would eventually return to Columbia University, where he studied under John Dewey (with whom he was also unimpressed).
Wiener's path to fame would be the rejection of theory and philosophy for its own sake, and this began during the First World War - Wiener was one of the mathematicians stationed in Aberdeen, Maryland working on artillery mathematics (Wiener had a yearning to join the troops on the front lines, but his myopia and general awkwardness made that a non-starter). After the war, and some odd jobs (including covering Lawrence, MA labor strife as a social-minded journalist), Wiener would eventually end up at MIT, where he would become a legend. Wiener would gain his fame in applied mathematics, working on statistical mechanics and the theory needed for the exploding field of electrical engineering. His work included designing early analog computing devices with Vannevar Bush and Yuk Wing Lee. Wiener also spent much of the inter-war period abroad, beginning a lifelong friendship with J.B.S. Haldane at Cambridge (who revived his interest in biology), and collaborating with the likes of Heisenberg, Born and Bohr in mathematical physics. In Europe, he would witness the beginnings of the Nazi rise first hand, which was made all the more terrifying because somewhere along the line Norbert learned by accident that he was Jewish (and a likely descendant of Maimonides), a secret that strangely had been kept from him by his parents. To make matters worse, his German wife was a Nazi sympathizer!
Wiener's penchant for collaboration would also bring him to Asia, and to Mexico where he engaged in extraordinary fruitful work with Cannon's student and neurophysiologist Arturo Rosenblueth - work that would be foundational for the emerging science of 'cybernetics'. Cybernetics would come of age during the Second World War, in which Wiener's ideas on information coalesced around a project with Julian Bigelow aimed at the predictive extrapolation of aircraft trajectories. "The extrapolation, interpolation, and smoothing of time series" (aka 'The Yellow Peril') was a classified document he authored that would greatly influence the development of the information and communication sciences (largely via Claude Shannon). Simultaneously, the famous Macy conferences were being held, and it was among this core group of interdisciplinary academics that cybernetics would emerge. It was here that Wiener would refine the ideas on circular causality, entropy and "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology" that would form the core of the emerging discipline. Wiener's tense collaboration/rivalry with John Von Neumann and David McCulloch is one recurring theme of this period. While the Wiener-Von Neumann split was dictated by science and politics, Conway and Siegelman's account provides a new personal account of the nature of the Wiener-McCulloch split. The latter split would play a large part in destroying the momentum of the fledging cybernetics movement (and, incidentally, Walter Pitts).
After publishing 'Cybernetics', Wiener's later years would feature intensified bouts with manic depression as he struggled with the social and moral implications of an increasingly mechanized and militarized society. He would become an outspoken critic of military research and corporate America, and the scientists who worked in such interests. His dire warnings would be expressed publicly in "The Human Use of Human Beings" (which he wished to title either "Pandora" or "Cassandra"), and "God and Golem". For his efforts, Wiener earned the attention of McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, partially due to his close friendships with Marxists like Haldane and Dirk Struik. In 1960 Wiener traveled to Moscow where the Soviet cybernetics boom was underway. Heinz von Foerster speculates that politics was not unimportant in the fading of the American cybernetics scene: "People were saying, `Let's get away from that cybernetics. It undermines our American way of thinking.'"
Finally, the book recounts Wiener's travels to India, late spiritualism, and relationship with Swami Sarvagatananda. Thus, just as Wiener's science touched nearly everything, so too did his life. We have Conway and Siegelman to thank for telling this latter half of the story.
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