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The Tragic Tale of a Genius

The cult of cybernetics in Russia was more philosophical than practical, but it may have had some lasting effects. Perhaps it contributed to the recent emergence of a computer-literate society and a home-grown software industry. In 1964, at the age of sixty-nine, Wiener was invited to give lectures about cybernetics in Sweden, where his ideas also had a wide following. The day after his arrival, he died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism on the steps of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.


Dark Hero of the Information Age is the third biography of Norbert Wiener, unless there are others of which I am ignorant. First came a joint biography of Wiener and the mathematician John von Neumann, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, by Steve Heims in 1980.5 Then came Norbert Wiener, 1894–1964, by Pesi Masani in 1990.6 And now the book under review. The main justification for a new biography is that the three biographies emphasize different aspects of Wiener’s life and character. The Heims biography emphasizes politics. It is mainly concerned with Wiener’s activities as a social critic in the last third of his life. It presents the parallel lives of von Neumann and Wiener as a simple struggle between black and white, with von Neumann as the evil genius of science in the service of war, and Wiener as the good genius of science in the service of peace. In a review of the Heims book which I published in Technology Review in 1981,7 I wrote:

If Heims had been willing [to stay in the background], to present his work as a historical narrative with the protagonists speaking for themselves, he would have made an important contribution to the understanding of the great moral dilemma of our age. Unfortunately,…he stands at the front of the stage between his characters and the audience, making it difficult for us to hear their voices and to see the drama of their lives [in historical perspective].

The authors of the new biography cite Heims frequently, but do not accept his judgments uncritically. They present the relationship between von Neumann and Wiener as it appears in the historical documents, a friendship based on common interests and deep mutual respect. The paths of von Neumann and Wiener diverged after World War II when von Neumann was willing to accept money from the United States government to support his research and Wiener was not. After that, they saw little of each other, but the mutual respect endured. When von Neumann started building a digital computer in Princeton in 1946, Wiener recommended his collaborator Julian Bigelow to be in charge of the hardware, and Bigelow became von Neumann’s chief engineer with Wiener’s blessing.

Pesi Masani’s biography is from a scholarly point of view the best of the three. Masani was a professional mathematician, born in India and settled in the United States. He collaborated with Wiener and published several substantial papers with him in the 1950s. After Wiener died, Masani edited his collected papers for publication. Masani was intimately familiar with every detail of Wiener’s work. The Masani biography is the only one that portrays him as a working mathematician. Any biography that skips the mathematics can give only a vague impression of Wiener’s way of thinking. Masani states his purpose at the beginning of his book: “This book attempts to trace the interaction between mathematical genius and history that has led to the conception of a stochastic cosmos.”

Masani explains Wiener’s mathematical ideas with admirable clarity, and he has found and reproduced many historical documents that the other biographers have missed. One particularly illuminating document that Masani reproduces in full is a long and friendly letter from von Neumann to Wiener, written in November 1946, discussing the mysteries of the human brain and the various ways in which the mysteries might be explored. “I am most anxious to have your reaction to these suggestions,” von Neumann writes. “I feel an intense need that we discuss the subject extensively with each other.” Von Neumann’s letter shows how far he had come in foreshadowing the era of molecular biology that he never lived to see. The letter also shows how far Heims diverged from the truth when he portrayed von Neumann and Wiener as polar opposites. They shared a passionate interest in biology. Both of them saw a deeper understanding of biology as the ultimate goal of their explorations of the science of computing and information.

After Heims has described Wiener’s politics and Masani has described his mathematics, what is there left for a third biography to do? This third biography gives us a new and intimate portrait of Wiener as a person, and describes his stormy relationships with his friends and family. Conway and Siegelman have done a thorough job of historical research, interviewing most of the surviving witnesses, and documenting the narrative with detailed references to published and unpublished papers, letters, and interviews. The title, The Dark Hero of the Information Age, indicates their main preoccupation. Their aim is to explore the roots of Wiener’s lifelong malaise and often weird behavior. Their intimate portrait became possible because they enjoyed the cooperation of Wiener’s daughters, Barbara and Peggy, who gave them free access to Wiener’s private papers and family records. Peggy wrote in a letter, “Serious unanswered questions remain concerning Dad’s life and relations with his colleagues. It is very important to tell the whole story,” and Barbara agreed. The main obstacle to full disclosure disappeared with the death of Wiener’s wife Margaret at the age of ninety-five in 1989. Margaret was a faithful and protective wife to Wiener as long as he lived, but was not on speaking terms with her daughters.

The drama of Wiener’s personal life begins with his years as an infant prodigy, tormented by his brilliant but tyrannical father. Either as a result of his father’s training or from genetic predisposition, he suffered from violent swings of mood that continued throughout his life. If he had been seen by a modern psychiatrist he would probably have been diagnosed as manic-depressive. He sank periodically into deep depressions that continued for several months, and then emerged into intervals of restless and creative activity. The depressions tended to come more often when he stayed at home, and that was one of the reasons why he spent so much of his time traveling. Away from home, the distractions of public lectures and ceaseless conversation with friends and admirers kept his spirits high.

Another major theme of this biography is Wiener’s marriage. His wife, Margaret, was a student of his father, and the marriage was arranged by his parents. Margaret was chosen to take over from his parents the job of caring for him and organizing his life. This job she performed well, running a frugal household and providing a comfortable home for him and the children. She said to a friend in the early days of the marriage, “Norbert does the math and I do the arithmetic.” She coped with his moods and raised his daughters.

But Margaret was in some respects even crazier than Wiener. She had emigrated from Germany to America at the age of fourteen. She was a fervent admirer of Adolf Hitler and kept two copies of Mein Kampf displayed prominently in her bedroom, one in German and one in English. She made no secret of her political views, to the intense annoyance of Wiener, who was himself Jewish and had many friends who were victims of Nazi persecution. When the daughters were teenagers and began to acquire boyfriends, she made their lives miserable by accusing them of nonexistent sexual delinquencies. When they once went out with a girlfriend and came home with their ears pierced, Margaret was furious and accused them of trying to seduce their father. As a result of her paranoid accusations, both daughters escaped from home as soon as they could and thereafter had little contact with her or with Wiener.

The most tragic episode of Wiener’s life happened in 1951 when he was fifty-seven years old and passionately involved in a collaboration with his friend Warren McCullough and a group of young colleagues that he called “the boys.” McCullough was a neurophysiologist who had moved from Illinois to MIT to work with Wiener. They planned to explore the connections between Wiener’s theory of feedback control and the functioning of living neurons and brains. “The boys” were a brilliant team, including Jerome Lettvin, who later became a leading experimental biologist. Margaret was insanely jealous of McCullough and his boys, and resolved to break up their friendship with Wiener. At a dinner with some colleagues in Mexico, who reported the episode to Lettvin many years later, she informed Wiener that McCullough’s boys had seduced his daughter Barbara when she was a teenager staying at McCullough’s house.

This story had no basis in fact, but Wiener believed it. He made no attempt to verify the accusation, and immediately wrote an angry letter to the president of MIT dissolving all connection between himself and the McCullough team. From that day until the end of Wiener’s life, the contact remained broken. McCullough never knew why. The effect of the breach on McCullough and his boys was devastating. The effect on Wiener was also profound. His foray into biology, and his hopes for unifying cybernetics with biology, were at an end. Margaret achieved her objective, to cut him off from his friends and have him for herself.

The personal drama of the breach between Wiener and McCullough is the centerpiece of this biography, the event around which the rest of the narrative revolves. Perhaps the main reason for the book’s existence is to give the Wiener daughters a chance to tell their story, to exorcise the family curse by exposing their secrets to the light of day. Wiener is the dark hero, and Margaret is the dark villain. The book reads more like a novel than a conventional biography. And inevitably the reviewer wonders whether the story is true. Margaret is now the one who is accused and will never have a chance to answer her accusers. She never spoke with the authors, and left no friend behind to speak for her. The evidence against her is well documented and seems convincing. And still, the reviewer wonders. The evidence that Margaret claimed a seduction had taken place comes from a single informant, the late Arturo Rosenblueth, who told the story to Jerome Lettvin and others, ten years after the event. This is not the sort of evidence that would convict a murderer in a court of law. It is not likely, but possible, that Rosenblueth, who died in 1970, might have had ulterior motives for concocting the story.

This biography belongs to a genre that has recently become fashionable, emphasizing the baring of family secrets and the exposure of human weaknesses. There has been a spate of books exposing the human weaknesses of Einstein, Madame Curie, and other scientific heroes. Such books are worth reading if they give us a balanced mixture of human drama with scientific substance. Many of them make no attempt at balance, giving us stories and scandals undiluted with science. The authors of this book have succeeded in bringing Wiener to life as a great figure in the world of science as well as a tragic hero in a domestic drama. They show him as he was, a mixture of Galileo and Othello. Because they are ignorant of mathematics, they cannot give the reader a detailed picture of what Wiener actually did. But they answer the crucial questions: what cybernetics was, what Wiener intended to do with it, and why it seems to have disappeared from the scene after Wiener’s death.

Wiener defined cybernetics to be “the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal.” The languages of communication theory are mathematical. To understand the history of cybernetics, it is important to understand that mathematical communication has two languages, which we call analog and digital. Analog communication describes the world in terms of continuously variable quantities such as electrical voltages and currents that can be directly measured. Digital communication describes the world in terms of zeros and ones, each zero or one representing a logical choice between two discrete alternatives. Analog communication is the language of analysis. Digital communication is the language of logic.

Wiener was fluent in both languages and intended cybernetics to include both. In 1940 he wrote a memorandum explaining in detail why digital language would be preferable for the computers whose existence he already foresaw. But his own contributions to communication theory happened to be written in analog language, for four reasons. First, his work as a pure mathematician had mostly been in analysis. Second, his practical experience with antiaircraft prediction was concerned with analog measurements and analog feedback mechanisms. Third, his conversations with neurophysiologists had convinced him that the language of sensory-motor feedback signals in the brains of humans and animals is analog. Fourth, the transmission of signals by chemical hormones is evidence that the action of the brain is at least partly analog. For all these reasons, Wiener’s book Cybernetics, which summarized his thinking in 1948, was written in analog language. And for the last ten years of his life, as he traveled from country to country preaching the gospel of cybernetics, he used analog language almost exclusively. In spite of his original intentions, cybernetics became a theory of analog processes.

Meanwhile, also in 1948, Claude Shannon published his classic pair of papers with the title “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” in The Bell System Technical Journal. Shannon’s theory was a theory of digital communication, using many of Wiener’s ideas but applying them in a new direction. Shannon’s theory was mathematically elegant, clear, and easy to apply to practical problems of communication. It was far more user-friendly than cybernetics. It became the basis of a new discipline called “information theory.” During the next ten years, digital computers began to operate all over the world, and analog computers rapidly became obsolete. Electronic engineers learned information theory, the gos-pel according to Shannon, as part of their basic training, and cybernetics was forgotten.

Neither Wiener nor von Neumann nor Shannon, nor anyone else in the 1940s, foresaw the microprocessors that would make digital computers small and cheap and reliable and available to private citizens. Nobody foresaw the Internet or the ubiquitous cell phone. As a result of the proliferation of digital computers in private hands, Wiener’s nightmare vision of a few giant computers determining the fate of human societies never came to pass. But other aspects of Wiener’s vision of the future are coming true. We see, as he predicted, millions of skilled human workers displaced by machines and sinking into poverty. We see the basis of the wealth of nations moving from the manufacture of goods to the processing of information. We see the beginnings of an understanding of the mysteries of the human brain. We still have much to learn from Wiener’s vision.


Norbert Wiener at MIT December 15, 2005

Knowing Norbert Wiener September 22, 2005

  1. 5

    MIT Press.

  2. 6


  3. 7

    February/March issue, pp. 17–19.

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