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Wiener, Norbert

cybernetics theory study subject

[ wee ner] (1894–1964) US mathematician: established the subject of cybernetics.

As a child Wiener showed his mathematical talent early, but his career then became erratic. At 15 he entered Harvard to study zoology; he changed to philosophy at Cornell and got a PhD from Harvard in mathematics at 19. He then studied logic briefly under B Russell (1872–1970) and . Suffering perhaps from too rapid an education, Wiener drifted through various activities, including journalism and writing encyclopedia entries, before obtaining a post in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1919. He held this until retirement.

Wiener began research on stochastic, or random processes such as Brownian motion, including work on statistical mechanics and ergodic theory (which is concerned with the onset of chaos in a system). Other areas that he advanced were integral equations, of a kind now known as Wiener integrals, quantum theory and potential theory. As part of his war work, Wiener applied statistical methods to control (eg of anti-aircraft guns) and communication engineering. Extending this broadly, for example into neurophysiology, computer design and biochemical regulation, led to his founding cybernetics as a subject. Cybernetics is the study of control and communication in complex electronic systems and in animals, especially humans.

His standing as a mathematician is hardly disputed, but his writings are hard to read and uneven in quality. As a person he was extraordinary; small, plump, myopic, playful and self-praising, he spoke many languages and was hard to understand in any of them. He was a famously bad lecturer, perhaps because his mind worked in a very unusual way.

Wigner, Eugene Paul [next] [back] Wien, Wilhelm

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