The Importance of Norbert Wiener

Norbert Wiener
Norbert Wiener; drawing by David Levine

When Norbert Wiener died a few months ago, one of the most original and significant—yet idiosyncratic—of contemporary scientists disappeared from the intellectual scene. He was entitled to go happy. He had lived fully and stylishly, with a flair not often found in the academic cloister. (But then M.I.T., on which he was based for forty years of his life, is nowadays scarcely a cloister.) He had the legitimate gratification of leaving behind him, not just a world-wide circle of admiring colleagues and pupils, but also a corpus of personal anecdotes motivated by the affection of those who knew him. And finally, he had reason to believe that his major innovations, both in thought and in mathematics, were by now securely established in the foundations of whole new sciences: cybernetics, information-theory, biophysics, and the rest.

There was only one fly in the ointment. By the time Wiener was approaching seventy, some people were already having second thoughts about his contribution. Had it really warranted all the earlier fuss? Were not the first claims about the significance and implications of cybernetics decidedly overdone? Had this initial enthusiasm perhaps been a temporary fad—something born of the scientists’ understandable recoil away from the military preoccupations of World War II and back to their chosen enterprise of extending human understanding? Like Edward Elgar (say) or John Galsworthy, Norbert Wiener lived long enough to sample the pains as well as the pleasures of becoming an historical figure in his own lifetime. The caravan was already moving on.

Those of us who believe in the permanent value of Wiener’s ideas are accordingly compelled to think over his achievement once again, and must try to present it more judiciously in the form of a balance-sheet, rather than a manifesto or company-prospectus. The time for hopes and promises is past. Now we must ask ourselves seriously just how many of those earlier I.O.U.s are in fact likely to be redeemed.

But first, the man: as an Englishman, I myself had little enough chance of meeting him, and I saw him in action not more than half-a-dozen times. Yet this was enough to leave in memory the impression of a unique and extraordinary man. He was (to use the word in an entirely innocent sense) the most peculiar American in my experience, and even in England I can liken him only to the late Sir Thomas Beecham. The similarities between the two men were no accident. True: they had a certain physical resemblance. Both of them were short, myopic, tubby. But their shared rotundity was more than a genetic coincidence: in both men, it marked out the cosmopolitan, the bon vivant. With it, there went a rotundity of expression in public conversation—I nearly said, monologue—which was too puckish to be called pompous, and an assumed air of prejudice and self-importance so extreme that it became a joy to observe. For so many…

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