The Tragic Tale of a Genius

Norbert Wiener
Norbert Wiener; drawing by David Levine

Norbert Wiener was famous at the beginning of his life and at the end. For thirty years in the middle during which he did his best work, he was comparatively unknown. He was famous at the beginning as a child prodigy. His father, Leo Wiener, the first Jew to be appointed a professor at Harvard, was a specialist in Slavic languages. Leo was also an extreme example of a pushy parent. He drove Norbert unmercifully, schooling him at home in Greek, Latin, mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Fifty years later Norbert described, in his autobiography, Ex-prodigy: My Childhood and Youth,1 how the prodigy was nurtured:

He would begin the discussion in an easy, conversational tone. This lasted exactly until I made the first mathematical mistake. Then the gentle and loving father was replaced by the avenger of the blood…. Father was raging, I was weeping, and my mother did her best to defend me, although hers was a losing battle.

At age eleven, Leo enrolled Norbert as a student at Tufts University, where he graduated with a degree in mathematics at age fourteen. Norbert then moved to Harvard as a graduate student and emerged with a Ph.D. in mathematical logic at age eighteen. While he was growing up and trying to escape from his notoriety as a prodigy at Tufts and Harvard, Leo was making matters worse by trumpeting Norbert’s accomplishments in newspapers and popular magazines. Leo was emphatic in claiming that his son was not unusually gifted, that any advantage that Norbert had gained over other children was due to his better training. “When this was written down in ineffaceable printer’s ink,” said Norbert in his autobiography, Ex-prodigy, “it declared to the public that my failures were my own but my successes were my father’s.”

Miraculously, after ten years of Leo’s training and seven years of tortured adolescence, Norbert settled down to adult life as an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became a productive mathematician. He climbed the academic ladder at MIT until he was a full professor, and stayed there for the rest of his life. For thirty years, roughly from age twenty to age fifty, he faded from public view. He remained famous in the MIT community for his personal eccentricities. He liked to think aloud and needed listeners to hear what he was thinking. He made a habit of wandering around the campus and talking at great length to any colleague or student that he encountered. Most of the time, the listeners had only a vague idea of what he was talking about. Colleagues and students who valued their time learned to hide when they saw him coming. At the same time, they respected him for his achievements and for his encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects.

Wiener was unusual among mathematicians in being equally at home in pure and applied mathematics. He made…

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