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Norbert Wiener at MIT

In response to:

The Tragic Tale of a Genius from the July 14, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

The review by Freeman Dyson of yet another study of Norbert Wiener [“The Tragic Tale of a Genius,” NYR, July 14] was, as usual, both thoughtful and thorough. One aspect of Professor Wiener’s personality that is missing in the recent spate of books and reviews is his presence and stature at MIT in the 1950s. He often met with groups of students and, as I remember these times, they were forthright and lively.

When Professor Wiener walked to and from class, he typically read while he strolled. In order to keep his eyes on his reading material when reading and walking, he used his free hand to feel his way along the wall. Students would see him coming and always cleared the path. As he approached the classroom, he often began speaking before he actually entered the room. By the time he picked up the chalk, he was two or three sentences into the day’s lecture. Usually his lectures consisted of complex mathematical proofs and, frequently, he became “stuck” somewhere along the way. When this happened, he would step back from the chalkboard, staring intently at his field of abstract symbols, and call for his student and assistant, Donald Brennan, to finish the exercise. Professor Wiener would sit down in the front row while Donald finished the proof and then offer his approval with the comment, “Now, that’s much better.”

Norbert Wiener was a true legend at MIT and was much revered by the students. Looking back, perhaps his eccentricities were a bit studied. It is sad to learn now that his life was somewhat troubled but, to the students at MIT of the Wiener era, he was an inspiration.

Bill Troutman

Montville, New Jersey

Freeman Dyson replies:

Thanks to Bill Troutman for his recollections of Wiener and of Donald Brennan. Don Brennan always spoke warmly of his mentor Wiener. Don was one of my closest friends and became a leading expert on arms control. He took the trouble to study and understand Soviet views of arms control, an accomplishment rare among Western experts. His death at the age of fifty-six left a gap that has not been filled.

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