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Knowing Norbert Wiener

In response to:

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

To the Editors:

As a niece and “surviving witness,” I wish to express my appreciation to Professor Freeman Dyson for the bulk of his insightful review of the latest biography of my uncle, Norbert Wiener [Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics, NYR, July 14]. Most particularly, I am touched by his penetrating summative comments regarding the book’s destructive portrait of my Aunt Margaret: “And inevitably the reviewer wonders whether the story [offered by the daughters] is true. Margaret is now the accused and will never have a chance to answer…[having] left no friend behind to speak for her.”

I cannot know all that my cousins Barbara and Peggy experienced, but I can speak up for my aunt, since I spent much time in the Wiener household over the years, and was Peggy’s friend and classmate growing up, and visited my aunt in New Hampshire several times in her final decade. My uncle was also a frequent visitor at my parents’ house in Belmont, where his mother Bertha lived for twenty years. My mother was his sister Constance and my father, mathematician Philip Franklin of MIT, was his longtime friend.

I remember both my aunt and uncle with true affection. I respect my aunt greatly, as a dedicated wife and mother—a good sport who did her best for both daughters growing up, while providing a secure and hospitable family nest for her mercurial and often demanding husband. She would host and entertain us cousins on many a week-long summer visit, feeding us royally, while simultaneously giving Norbert space for his scholarly activities and meeting his needs for a strict vegetarian diet. The most stable member of that gifted but unusual family, she certainly did not deserve to be painted as frigid or evilly scheming or crazy or quasi-Nazi—none of which she was.

In actuality, my aunt was an admirable and hard-working immigrant. Arriving in the US at age fourteen, and after surviving teenage privations in the West, she earned her way to graduate school at Harvard, raised her girls in places as far away as China, sturdily shouldered the not-easy burdens of her husband’s growing fame, and tried, all the while, to give her daughters normal high school and college experiences and secure futures in the years beyond.

Dyson is right that this biography belongs to a fashionable contemporary genre “emphasizing the baring of family secrets and the exposure of human weaknesses” and it is no accident that the book’s dust jacket is strikingly similar to that of A Beautiful Mind, the distinguished biography of manic-depressive mathematician John Nash. The reviewer is wrong, however, in crediting authors Conway and Siegelman with a “thorough job of historical research, interviewing most of the surviving witnesses….” In the first place, neither I nor Norbert’s two other nieces were ever contacted by the authors although we were—and are—all very much alive. In the second place, throughout the book there is a paucity of comments by Norbert’s really distinguished younger colleagues as opposed to ample quotes of the less stellar members of his back lot coterie.

It grieves me to see my relatives so misrepresented. I did not seek to be interviewed, but had I been, I would certainly have affirmed the fundamental decency of my aunt and uncle and queried the journalistic validity of relying so heavily on notoriously subjective personal interviews as primary sources. If tell-all interviews are to be used in this new age of scientific gossip, biographers should at least aim at presenting the broadest spectrum of personal and professional viewpoints. Only thus can they attain 360-degree credibility and avoid the sort of one-sided conclusions which assassinate the characters of their subjects.

Hope Franklin O’Neill

Pacific Palisades, California

To the Editors:

For decades I have admired much in Freeman Dyson’s work in theoretical physics, as well as in his more general essays. However some comments he makes about my book John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death (MIT Press, 1980) in the context of his review of Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman’s new book about Norbert Weiner, Dark Hero of the Information Age, seem to me off the mark. Although I appreciate his taking note of my 1980 book in his essay, this letter is an effort to call attention to the discrepancies between his description of the book and the book itself.

Dyson avers that I presented “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 peace,” and implied that I didn’t even acknowledge their friendship.

In fact the book is replete with passages showing the friendship between the two men.

The bulk of the book deals with themes other than the two men’s contrasting attitudes toward the post-Hiroshima nuclear arms race, the only theme which could plausibly be described as “a simple struggle between black and white” (both spoke up against the McCarthy-era witch hunts). The other themes lead mostly to showing similarities or minor, although nevertheless interesting, differences (e.g., styles within mathematics) between the two friends.

Dyson further suggests that I failed to recognize the two men’s common interest in biology and in formulating parts of that discipline in terms of mathematics and information. In fact Chapter Ten of the book is primarily devoted to that common interest, and already in Chapter Nine I describe their joint early 1945 plans for a postwar center combining engineering and neurology, with both men part of the faculty.

Dyson’s critical remarks very specifically imply I had missed an important 1946 letter from von Neumann to Wiener. In fact, however, I had found that very letter in the archives, described its content and significance, and quoted parts of it in my book (pp. 203–205). I don’t know how Dyson got the idea that I was unaware or unappreciative of that letter.

I can understand that Dyson found the open expression of my reflections in the book disturbing, although it served to protect against hidden bias, and enabled the reader to openly disagree. As stated in the preface, the book was intended as a “double-biographical essay,” and accordingly allowed for the author’s thoughts stimulated by the lives and work of the two mathematicians.

In all, in spite of my admiration for much of Dyson’s work, I have felt obliged to point out his misrepresentation of my book.

Steve J. Heims

Gloucester, Massachusetts

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