[Paleopsych] NYT: (Norbert Wiener) A Brilliant Mind and an Anguished Life

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Science > Books on Science: A Brilliant Mind and an Anguished Life


    "Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the
    Father of Cybernetics," by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. Basic Books,
    423 pages, $27.50.

    It is hardly the greatest scientific mystery of the 20th century, but
    it is a riddle just the same: why did Norbert Wiener - gray eminence
    of gray matter, inventor of cybernetics, founding theorist of the
    information age - abandon his closest young colleagues just as they
    were about to embark on an exciting new collaboration on the workings
    of the brain?

    Historians of science, and even some of Wiener's associates, have long
    puzzled over this question. Now Ms. Conway and Mr. Siegelman offer an
    answer. In their new biography, they tell a tale of jealousy, false
    accusations of sexual misconduct and twisted family relations.

    Their account might be dismissed as a 50-year-old soap opera, were it
    not for Wiener's stature. He pioneered the study of the ways
    mechanical, biological and electronic systems communicate and

    His groundbreaking research at the Massachusetts Institute of
    Technology defined the parameters of what we know today as computer
    science. His book "Cybernetics" is widely regarded as a major work of
    20th century science.

    And he was already famous, before he even started. Born in 1894, he
    grew up in eastern Massachusetts under the harsh tutelage of a father
    whose unorthodox home schooling methods and relentless pushing turned
    Wiener into a child prodigy.

    By the time he was 14 he had a diploma from Tufts and by 18 he had
    earned a doctorate in mathematical philosophy from Harvard. One
    newspaper called him "the most remarkable boy in the world."

    But these achievements came at a cost. After a childhood taken up
    almost exclusively with study, his adulthood was plagued by
    clumsiness, tubbiness, nearsightedness and absentmindedness so extreme
    they eventually became the stuff of legend. Years of devastating
    paternal criticism left him hypersensitive, and he suffered periodic
    episodes of deep depression.

    Nevertheless, he married, and the woman he married is the villain of
    this tale.

    She was Margaret Engemann, a young immigrant from Germany whom he met
    through his parents. The younger Wieners had two daughters and
    initially, it seemed, the marriage was more or less happy.

    But it was Margaret Wiener's dream, the authors write, to be a
    high-status professor's wife, presiding over an intellectual salon in
    the Teutonic mold. Instead, her husband had surrounded himself with a
    number of imaginative young students and protégés, as intent as he was
    on figuring out how the brain talks to itself and how machines could
    be made to perform similar feats.

    One in particular incited her ire. He was Warren McCulloch, a
    neurophysiologist and free-wheeling bohemian with a thirst for alcohol
    and an inventive mind. The authors theorize that she disliked his way
    of life and at the same time feared he would threaten Wiener's
    prominence at M.I.T. To prevent that, they say, she tried to quash
    plans for McCulloch and his associates to move to M.I.T.

    When that failed, she told Wiener an invented story, that one or more
    of "the boys," as Wiener called them, had seduced their elder

    The authors say this explains why Wiener broke with the boys -
    immediately, utterly and apparently without a word of real explanation
    to anyone. Read from a distance of decades, it seems incredible that
    such a promising collaboration could have collapsed so completely. It
    is particularly poignant that Wiener, who suffered so much from
    paternal disdain, would abandon young men who thought of him as a

    The boys waited in vain for Wiener's antipathy to fade. Years later,
    scientists still wonder what their collaboration might have produced,
    had they continued to work together.

    As the book recounts, the rest of Wiener's life was hardly bereft of
    accomplishment. Among other things, he collaborated on major advances
    in robotics and automation. In 1964, shortly before he died at age 69,
    he received the National Medal of Science.

    But often, the authors say, Wiener missed out on credit he should have
    had because he was chronically ahead of his time or because he shared
    his findings readily, allowing less generous colleagues and
    competitors to capitalize on his insights.

    Wiener's interest in cybernetics in the Soviet Union and his support
    of it brought him unwelcome government attention in the anti-Communist
    1950's. And his ardent opposition to secrecy and commercialism left
    him at odds with many scientists. (One can only wonder what he would
    have said about the commercialization of science today.)

    Over the years, Wiener has been described again and again as a great
    mathematician, gifted with imagination and insight that soared over
    the artificial boundaries that divide disciplines in science. Recent
    findings in neuroscience, for example, confirmed his early hunches
    about the workings of the brain, and he is still revered at M.I.T.

    But in the prosaic realm of real life, he was often disappointed,
    discouraged and downhearted. His may have been one of the great minds
    of the 20th century, but in reading this book one can only feel sorry
    for him.

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