Norbert Wiener

American mathematician, scientist in cybernetics and artificial intelligence (1894–1964)

Norbert Wiener (26 November 189418 March 1964) was a U.S. mathematician, and a pioneer in the study of stochastic processes and noise especially in the field of electronic communication and control systems. He coined the term "cybernetics" in his book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948).

To provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences. (1946)


The best material model of a cat is another, or preferably the same cat.
We know that for a long time everything we do will be nothing more than the jumping off point for those who have the advantage of already being aware of our ultimate results.
  • In the past, the community of scholars has made it a custom to furnish scientific information to any person seriously seeking it. However, we must face these facts: The policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made it clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences. One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the established custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may inquire of him.
    • Wiener's response to a request for information concerning controlled missiles, first published in Atlantic Monthly, December 1946
  • The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends by putting unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use.
    • Wiener's response to a request for information concerning controlled missiles, first published in Atlantic Monthly, December 1946
  • [T]he best material model of a cat is another, or preferably the same cat.
    • Philosophy of Science (1945) (with A. Rosenblueth)
  • The measures taken during the war by our military agencies, in restricting the free intercourse among scientists on related projects or even on the same project have gone so far that it is clear that if continued in time of peace, this policy will lead to the total irresponsibility of the scientist, and, ultimately, to the death of science. ...The interchange of ideas, which is one of the greatest traditions of science, must of course receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an arbiter of life and death. ...
  • I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists...
    • "A Scientist Rebels" Atlantic Monthly (Jan, 1947)
  • There are no answers, only cross-references.
    • Norbert Wiener 1894-1964 (Vita Mathematica, 1990, p. 337)
    • Wiener's Law of Libraries
  • Scientific discovery consists in the interpretation for our own convenience of a system of existence which has been made with no eye to our convenience at all.
    One of the chief duties of a mathematician in acting as an advisor to scientists is to discourage them from expecting too much of mathematicians.
    • As quoted in Comic Sections (1993) by D MacHale
  • What most experimenters take for granted before they begin their experiments is infinitely more interesting than any results to which their experiments lead.
    • "A New Theory of Measurement: A Study in the Logic of Mathematics," Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, Volume s2-19, Issue=1 (1921), pp. 181–205
  • It is my thesis that machines can and do transcend some of the limitations of their designers... although they are theoretically subject to human criticism, such criticism may be ineffective until a time long after it is relevant. By the very slowness of our human activities, our effective control of our machines may be nullified. If the rules for victory in a war game do not correspond to what we actually wish for our country, it is more likely that such a machine may produce a policy which will win a nominal victory on points, at the cost of every interest we have at heart, even that of national survival.
    • “Revolt of the Machines,” Time 75, no. 2, January 11, 1960, p. 32.
  • The terms "black box" and "white box" are convenient and figurative expressions of not very well determined usage. I shall understand by a black box a piece of apparatus, such as four-terminal networks with two input and two output terminals, which performs a definite operation on the present and past of the input potential, but for which we do not necessarily have any information of the structure by which this operation is performed. On the other hand, a white box will be similar network in which we have built in the relation between input and output potentials in accordance with a definite structural plan for securing a previously determined input-output relation.
    • Preface. page xi. (Footnote 1)
Neither the artist nor the mathematician may be able to tell you what constitutes the difference between a significant piece of work and an inflated trifle; but if he is not able to recognize this in his own heart, he is no artist and no mathematician.
  • The most fruitful areas for the growth of the sciences were those which had been neglected as a no-man's land between the various established fields.
    • p. 2
  • Since Leibniz there has perhaps been no man who has had a full command of all the intellectual activity of his day. Since that time, science has been increasingly the task of specialists, in fields which show a tendency to grow progressively narrower... Today there are few scholars who can call themselves mathematicians or physicists or biologists without restriction. A man may be a topologist or a coleopterist. He will be filled with the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and all its ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleague three doors down the corridor, and will consider any interest in it on his own part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy... There are fields of scientific work, as we shall see in the body of this book, which have been explored from the different sides of pure mathematics, statistics, electrical engineering, and neurophysiology; in which every single notion receives a separate name from each group, and in which important work has been triplicated or quadruplicated, while still other important work is delayed by the unavailability in one field of results that may have already become classical in the next field.
    It is these boundary regions which offer the richest opportunities to the qualified investigator. They are at the same time the most refractory to the accepted techniques of mass attack and the division of labor. If the difficulty of a physiological problem is mathematical in essence, then physiologists ignorant of mathematics will get precisely as far as one physiologists ignorant of mathematics, and no further. If a physiologist who knows no mathematics works together with a mathematician who knows no physiology, the one will be unable to state his problem in terms that the other can manipulate, and the second will be unable to put the answers in any form that the first can understand... A proper exploration of these blank spaces on the map of science could only be made by a team of scientists, each a specialist in his own field but each possessing a thoroughly sound and trained acquaintance with the fields of his neighbors; all in the habit of working together, of knowing one another's intellectual customs, and of recognizing the significance of a colleague's new suggestion before it has taken on a full formal expression. The mathematician need not have the skill to conduct a physiological experiment, but he must have the skill to understand one, to criticize one, and to suggest one. The physiologist need not be able to prove a certain mathematical theorem, but he must be able to grasp its physiological significance and to tell the mathematician for what he should look. We had dreamed for years of an institution of independent scientists, working together in one of these backwoods of science, not as subordinates of some great executive officer, but joined by the desire, indeed by the spiritual necessity, to understand the region as a whole, and to lend one another the strength of that understanding.
    • p. 2-4; As cited in: George Klir (2001) Facets of Systems Science, p. 47-48
  • As to sociology and anthropology, it is manifest that the importance of information and communication as mechanisms of organization proceeds beyond the individual into the community. On the other hand, it is completely impossible to understand social communities such as those of ants without a thorough investigation of their means of communication, and we were fortunate enough to have the aid of Dr. Schneirla in this matter. For the similar problems of human organization, we sought help from the anthropologists Drs. Bateson and Margaret Mead; while Dr. Morgenstern of the Institute for Advanced Study was our adviser in the significant field of social organization belong to economic theory. His very important joint book on games with Dr. von Neumann, by the way, represents a most interesting study of social organization from the point of view of methods closely related to, although distinct from, the subject matter of cybernetics. Dr. Lewin and others represented the newer work on the theory of opinion sampling and the practice of opinion making, and Dr. F. C. S. Northrup was interested in assaying the philosophical significance of our work.
    • Introduction. p. 18-19
  • As I have already hinted, one of the directions of work which the realm of ideas of the Macy meetings has suggested concerns the importance of the notion and the technique of communication in the social system. It is certainly true that the social system is an organization like the individual, that it is bound together by a system of communication, and that it has a dynamics in which circular processes of a feedback nature play an important part. This is true, both in the general fields of anthropology and sociology and in the more specific field of economics; and the very important work, which we have already mentioned, of von Neumann and Morgenstern on the theory of games enters into this range of ideas. On this basis, Drs. Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead have urged me, in view of the intensely pressing nature of the sociological and economic problems of the present age of confusion, to devote a large part of my energies to the discussion of this side of cybernetics.
    • Introduction. p. 24.
  • Let it be remarked ... that an important difference between the way in which we use the brain and the machine is that the machine is intended for many successive runs, either with no reference to each other, or with a minimal, limited reference, and that it can be cleared between such runs; while the brain, in the course of nature, never even approximately clears out its past records. Thus the brain, under normal circumstances, is not the complete analogue of the computing machine but rather the analogue of a single run on such a machine. We shall see later that this remark has a deep significance in psychopathology and in psychiatry.
    • V. Computing Machines and the Nervous System. p. 121.
  • The mechanical brain does not secrete thought "as the liver does bile," as the earlier materialists claimed, nor does it put it out in the form of energy, as the muscle puts out its activity. Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day.
    • V. Computing Machines and the Nervous System. p. 132.
  • The odors perceived by the ant seem to lead to a highly standardized course of conduct; but the value of a simple stimulus, such as an odor, for conveying information depends not only on the information conveyed by the stimulus itself but on the whole nervous constitution of the sender and receiver of the stimulus as well. Suppose I find myself in the woods with an intelligent savage who cannot speak my language and whose language I cannot speak. Even without any code of sign language common to the two of us, I can learn a great deal from him. All I need to do is to be alert to those moments when he shows the signs of emotion or interest. I then cast my eyes around, perhaps paying special attention to the direction of his glance, and fix in my memory what I see or hear. It will not be long before I discover the things which seem important to him, not because he has communicated them to me by language, but because I myself have observed them. In other words, a signal without an intrinsic content may acquire meaning in his mind by what he observes at the time, and may acquire meaning in my mind by what I observed at the time. The ability that he has to pick out the moments of my special, active attention is in itself a language as varied in possibilities as the range of impressions that the two of us are able to encompass. Thus social animals may have an active, intelligent, flexible means of communication long before the development of language.
    • VIII. Information, Language, and Society. p. 157.
  • A group may have more group information or less group information than its members. A group of non-social animals, temporarily assembled, contains very little group information, even though its members may possess much information as individuals. This is because very little that one member does is noticed by the others and is acted on by them in a way that goes further in the group. On the other hand, the human organism contains vastly more information, in all probability, than does any one of its cells. There is thus no necessary relation in either direction between the amount of racial or tribal or community information and the amount of information available to the individual.
    • VIII. Information, Language, and Society. p. 158.
  • As in the case of the individual, not all the information which is available to the race at one time is accessible without special effort. There is a well-known tendency of libraries to become clogged by their own volume; of the sciences to develop such a degree of specialization that the expert is often illiterate outside his own minute specialty. Dr. Vannevar Bush has suggested the use of mechanical aids for the searching through vast bodies of material. These probably have their uses, but they are limited by the impossibility of classifying a book under an unfamiliar heading unless some particular person has already recognized the relevance of that heading for that particular book. In the case where two subjects have the same technique and intellectual content but belong to widely separated fields, this still requires some individual with an almost Leibnizian catholicity of interest.
    • VIII. Information, Language, and Society. p. 158.

The Human Use of Human Beings (1950)

Norbert Wiener (1950) The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. revised in 1954.
  • It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part
    • p. 16
  • To live effectively is to live with adequate information.
    • p. 17-18
  • It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback. Both of them have sensory receptors as one stage in their cycle of operation: that is, in both of them there exists a special apparatus for collecting information from the outer world at low energy levels, and for making it available in the operation of the individual or of the machine. In both cases these external messages are not taken neat, but through the internal transforming powers of the apparatus, whether it be alive or dead. The information is then turned into a new form available for the further stages of performance. In both the animal and the machine this performance is made to be effective on the outer world. In both of them, their performed action on the outer world, and not merely their intended action, is reported back to the central regulatory apparatus. This complex of behavior is ignored by the average man, and in particular does not play the role that it should in our habitual analysis of society; for just as individual physical responses may be seen from this point of view, so may the organic responses of society itself. I do not mean that the sociologist is unaware of the existence and complex nature of communications in society, but until recently he has tended to overlook the extent to which they are the cement which binds its fabric together.
  • What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the results of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature, which on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature. For the more we get out of the world the less we leave, and in the long run we shall have to pay our debts at a time that may be very inconvenient for our own survival.
    • II. Progress and Entropy. p. 46
  • Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions. It seems almost as if progress itself and our fight against the increase of entropy intrinsically must end in the downhill path from which we are trying to escape.
    • II. Progress and Entropy. p. 46-47
  • May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belong to acquiescence and hence to weakness.
    • II. Progress and Entropy. p. 47
  • We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not the stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.
    • V. Organization as the Message. p. 96
  • Until we in the community have made up our minds that what we really want is expiation, or removal, or reform, or or the discouragement of potential criminals, we shall get none of these, but only a confusion in which crime breeds more crime.
    • VI. Law and Communication. p. 110
  • That country will have the greatest security whose informational and scientific situation is adequate to meet the demands that may be put on it—the country in which it is fully realized that information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it. In other words, no amount of scientific research, carefully recorded in books and papers, and then put into our libraries with labels of secrecy, will be adequate to protect us for any length of time in a world where the effective level of information is perpetually advancing.
    • VII. Communication, Secrecy, and Social Policy. p. 121-122
  • We are in the position of the man who has only two ambitions in life. One is to invent the universal solvent which will dissolve any solid substance, and the second is to invent the universal container which will hold any liquid. Whatever this inventor does, he will be frustrated.
    • VII. Communication, Secrecy, and Social Policy. p. 129
  • What sometimes enrages me and always disappoints and grieves me is the preference of great schools of learning for the derivative as opposed to the original, for the conventional and thin which can be duplicated in many copies rather than the new and powerful, and for arid correctness and limitation of scope and method rather than for universal newness and beauty, wherever it may be seen.
    • VIII. Role of the Intellectual and the Scientist. p. 135
  • Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor.
    • p. 162
  • The sense of tragedy is that the world is not a pleasant little nest made for our protection, but a vast and largely hostile environment, in which we can achieve great things only by defying the gods; and that this defiance inevitably brings its own punishment.
    • X. Some Communication Machines and Their Future. p. 184
  • A faith which we follow upon orders imposed from outside is no faith, and a community which puts its dependence upon such a pseudo-faith is ultimately bound to ruin itself because of the paralysis which the lack of a healthy growing science imposes upon it.
    • XI. Language, Confusion, and Jam. p. 193

I am a mathematician, the later life of a prodigy (1953)

Norbert Wiener (1953) I am a mathematician, the later life of a prodigy. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 2e ed. Doubleday, 1956: An autobiographical account of the mature years and career of Norbert Wiener and a continuation of the account of his childhood in Ex-prodigy
  • Physics is at present a mass of partial theories which no man has yet been able to render truly and clearly consistent. It has been well said that the modern physicist is a quantum theorist on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and a student of gravitational relativity theory on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday he is praying. . . that someone will find the reconciliation between the two views.
    • p. 109
  • We mathematicians who operate with nothing more expensive than paper and possibly printers' ink are quite reconciled to the fact that, if we are working in an active field, our discoveries will commence to be obsolete at the moment that they are written down or even at the moment they are conceived. We know that for a long time everything we do will be nothing more than the jumping off point for those who have the advantage of already being aware of our ultimate results. This is the meaning of the famous apothegm of Newton, when he said, "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants".
    • p. 266

Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (1964)

  • The Advantage is that mathematics is a field in which one's blunders tend to show very clearly and can be corrected or erased with a stroke of the pencil. It is a field which has often been compared with chess, but differs from the latter in that it is only one's best moments that count and not one's worst. A single inattention may lose a chess game, whereas a single successful approach to a problem, among many which have been relegated to the wastebasket, will make a mathematician's reputation.
  • Mathematics is too arduous and uninviting a field to appeal to those to whom it does not give great rewards. These rewards are of exactly the same character as those of the artist. To see a difficult uncompromising material take living shape and meaning is to be Pygmalion, whether the material is stone or hard, stonelike logic. To see meaning and understanding come where there has been no meaning and no understanding is to share the work of a demiurge. No amount of technical correctness and no amount of labour can replace this creative moment, whether in the life of a mathematician or of a painter or musician. Bound up with it is a judgement of values, quite parallel to the judgement of values that belongs to the painter or the musician. Neither the artist nor the mathematician may be able to tell you what constitutes the difference between a significant piece of work and an inflated trifle; but if he is not able to recognise this in his own heart, he is no artist and no mathematician.
  • The success of mathematical physics led the social scientist to be jealous of its power without quite understanding the intellectual attitudes that had contributed to this power. The use of mathematical formulae had accompanied the development of the natural sciences and become the mode in the social sciences. Just as primitive peoples adopt the Western modes of denationalized clothing and of parliamentatism out of a vague feeling that these magic rites and vestments will at once put them abreast of modern culture and technique, so the economists have developed the habit of dressing up their rather imprecise ideas in the language of the infinitesimal calculus.
    • p. 89; partly cited in: Herman E. Daly. Steady-State Economics: Second Edition With New Essays. 1977/1991 p. 4
  • [T]he future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence. The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.
    • p. 69

Quotes about Wiener

Even measured by Wiener's standards Cybernetics is a badly organised work … mathematical readers were more fascinated by the richness of its ideas than by its shortcomings.
Wiener's being both absent-minded and near-sighted has produced many humorous anecdotes.
  • His office was a few doors down the hall from mine. He often visited my office to talk to me. When my office was moved after a few years, he came in to introduce himself. He didn't realize I was the same person he had frequently visited; I was in a new office so he thought I was someone else.
    • Phyllis L. Block, graduate administrator at the MIT Department of Mathematics
  • He wrote a very complicated integral on the blackboard, and then wrote '=6' with no intermediate steps. An intrepid student challenged him: Can you do that another way? He left the room for about 20 minutes. He returned, erased the '=6' and wrote '=6' saying that yes indeed he could.
    • Gene B. Chase, anecdote from Wiener's course Fourier Series and Integrals
  • He was short and rotund. Because he stood close to the blackboard, students sat in seats far to the sides to be able to get an angled look at what he was writing. Only the graduate teaching assistant sat in the middle. This was still a problem because Wiener sometimes erased with the left hand what he wrote with the right hand.
    • Gene B. Chase, anecdote from Wiener's course Fourier Series and Integrals
  • He went to a conference and parked his car in the big lot. When the conference was over, he went to the lot but forgot where he parked his car. He even forgot what his car looked like. So he waited until all the other cars were driven away, then took the car that was left.
  • When he and his family moved to a new house a few blocks away, his wife gave him written directions on how to reach it, since she knew he was absent-minded. But when he was leaving his office at the end of the day, he couldn't remember where he put her note, and he couldn't remember where the new house was. So he drove to his old neighborhood instead. He saw a young child and asked her, "Little girl, can you tell me where the Wieners moved?" "Yes, Daddy," came the reply, "Mommy said you'd probably be here, so she sent me to show you the way home".
    • Anecdote as recounted by Howard Eves
  • One day he was sitting in the campus lounge, intensely studying a paper on the table. Several times he'd get up, pace a bit, then return to the paper. Everyone was impressed by the enormous mental effort reflected on his face. Once again he rose from his paper, took some rapid steps around the room, and collided with a student. The student said, "Good afternoon, Professor Wiener." Wiener stopped, stared, clapped a hand to his forehead, said "Wiener — that's the word," and ran back to the table to fill the word "wiener" in the crossword puzzle he was working on.
    • Anecdote as recounted by Howard Eves
  • He drove 150 miles to a math conference at Yale University. When the conference was over, he forgot he came by car, so he returned home by bus. The next morning, he went out to his garage to get his car, discovered it was missing, and complained to the police that while he was away, someone stole his car.
  • In appearance and behaviour, Norbert Wiener was a baroque figure, short, rotund, and myopic, combining these and many qualities in extreme degree. His conversation was a curious mixture of pomposity and wantonness. He was a poor listener. His self-praise was playful, convincing and never offensive. He spoke many languages but was not easy to understand in any of them. He was a famously bad lecturer.
  • As I near the end of my personal recollections of life at M.I.T., it is impossible to refrain from relating my eye-witness stories about a brilliant man, Norbert Wiener, and his lovable eccentricities. I took two semester courses under Professor Wiener: one was Fourier Series and Fourier Integrals, and the other was, I believe, Operational Calculus. It is vivid in my memory that Professor Wiener would always come to class without any lecture notes. He would first take out his big handkerchief and blow his nose very vigorously and noisily. He would pay very little attention to his class and would seldom announce the subject of his lecture. He would face the blackboard, standing very close to it because he was extremely near-sighted. Although I usually sat in the front row, I had difficulty seeing what he wrote. Most of the other students could not see anything at all. It was most amusing to the class to hear Professor Wiener saying to himself, "This was very wrong, definitely." He would quickly erase all he had written down. He would then start all over again, and sometimes murmur to himself, "This looks all right so far." Minutes later, "This cannot be right either," and he would rub it all out again. This on- again, off-again process continued until the bell signaled the end of the hour. Then Professor Wiener would leave the room without even looking at his audience.
    • C.K. Jen, Recollections of a Chinese Physicist (1990)
  • As a human being Wiener was above all stimulating. I have known some who found the stimulus unwelcome. He could offend publicly by snoring through a lecture and then asking an awkward question in the discussion, and also privately by proffering information and advice on some field remote from his own to an august dinner companion. I like to remember Wiener as I once saw him late at night in Magdalen College, Oxford, surrounded by a spellbound group of undergraduates, talking, endlessly talking. We are all the poorer that he now talks no more.
  • He was horrified by Hiroshima and the prominent role of scientists in the development of atomic weapons. The tremendous expense of the Manhattan Project, he argued, necessitated the use of bombs to justify the investment. But that was not the only compulsion, nor was it patriotism. "The pressure to use the bomb, with its full killing power," he wrote later, "was not merely great from a patriotic point of view but was quite as great from the point of view of the personal fortunes of people involved in its development." Wiener did not think that the use of the bomb on Japan, on Orientals, was without significance. "I was acquainted with more than one of these popes and cardinals of applied science, and I knew very well how they underrated aliens of all sorts, particularly those not of the European race."
    • David F. Noble, Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (2011)
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