Norbert Wiener

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Norbert Wiener

Norbert Wiener (born November 26, 1894 in Columbia , Missouri , † March 18, 1964 in Stockholm ) was an American mathematician and philosopher . He is known as the founder of cybernetics , an expression he coined in his work Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948). In doing so, he created the scientific and mathematical basis for control theory and control engineering for calculating the dynamics and stability of feedback systems and described their analogies to the human brain (due to the feedback through sensory organs ) and to social organizations (due to the feedback through communication and observation ).


Early years

Norbert Wiener was born in Columbia , Missouri, as the first child of the Jewish couple Leo and Bertha Wiener. His father was a professor of Slavic Languages ​​at Harvard University . The son was raised mainly at home and was considered a “child prodigy” because he was particularly interested in foreign languages ​​from a very early age. However, he had no technical skills, his activities in the field of technology were always theoretical. In 1903 he entered Ayer High School in Massachusetts and graduated from there in 1906.

In September 1906 at the age of 11, he joined the Tufts College in order mathematics to study. He graduated from there in 1909 and entered Harvard. There he studied zoology , but in 1910 he moved to Cornell University to study philosophy . He then returned to Harvard, where he completed his dissertation on mathematical logic in 1912 .

From Harvard he moved to Cambridge , England, to continue studying under Bertrand Russell and Godfrey Harold Hardy . In 1914 he was in Göttingen with David Hilbert and Edmund Landau . Then he returned to Cambridge and then back to the USA. From 1915 to 1916 he taught philosophy at Harvard, worked for General Electric and for the Encyclopedia Americana . He later worked for the military at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a ballistic testing ground in Maryland . He stayed in Maryland until the end of the war. Then he began teaching math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

While he was working at MIT , he maintained numerous contacts that led to many trips to the USA, Mexico, Europe and Asia, where he benefited from his talent for languages ​​(ten languages). In 1926 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . In the same year he married Margaret Engemann and returned to Europe on a Guggenheim scholarship . He worked most of the time in Göttingen and with Hardy in Cambridge. He dealt with Brownian molecular motion , the Fourier integral , the Dirichlet problem , harmonic analysis and the Tauber theorems . His field of work extended beyond pure and applied mathematics to questions of physiology, especially neurophysiology . In 1933 he received the Bôcher Memorial Prize . In 1950 he gave a plenary lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Cambridge (Massachusetts) ( A comprehensive view of prediction theory ) and also in Oslo in 1936 ( Gap theorems ). Norman Levinson is one of his PhD students .

The Wiener filter and the Wiener process are named after Norbert Wiener and the Wiener-Wurst ( Wiener Sausage ), in which an open ball is viewed, the center of which performs a Brownian movement. He proved the Paley-Wiener theorem , the Paley-Wiener-Zygmund theorem , the Wiener-Ikehara theorem , the Wiener-Chinchin theorem, and the Wiener overlapping lemma . The set of Vienna , which on a certain 1932 covered by it work on the series expansion of inverses Fourier series is based, in 1941 proved the Soviet mathematician IM Gelfand . Wiener died on a lecture tour in Stockholm in 1964.


Noisy image of an astronaut
Noisy image of an astronaut after applying the Wiener filter

In addition to his contributions to pure mathematics, he is particularly known as a pioneer of cybernetics. These contributions fell into the early stages of electronic calculating machines from the 1940s.

Wiener filter

In the 1920s, Norbert Wiener worked intensively on solutions for stochastic processes, u. a. the Brownian movement , which he modeled mathematically for the first time in 1923 as the Wiener process . On the basis of this theoretical work, in the 1940s he modeled the behavior of measurement signals that were disturbed by shot noise and other external influences, such as B. with weak and therefore highly amplified radar signals . As a result, he described a method for optimal noise suppression by the Wiener filter with minimal mean square deviation. Since it was developed in parallel and independently of it by the Soviet mathematician Andrei Kolmogorow , it is also known as the Wiener-Kolmogoroff filter.


Title page of Wiener's work
Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine , published in 1948

His preoccupation with automatic aiming and the automatic firing of anti-aircraft guns, with a model that predicts the trajectory of an aircraft based on the analysis of the behavior of a pilot knowing himself to be followed. During the Second World War , the advancement of communications technology and communication theory led him to cybernetics. It was born in 1943, when he dealt with John von Neumann , engineers and neuroscientists in an interdisciplinary meeting with the similarities between the brain and computers. In 1947 he agreed with other scientists on the term "cybernetics" and a uniform terminology. A unit of problems from the field of regulation and statistical mechanics should be considered, as it was important in technical systems as well as in living organisms. The book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine was published almost simultaneously in New York and Paris in 1948. In it he explained the parallels between organic and inorganic information processing. One example is the control loop that can be found in steam engines and thermostats just like in the human body. "Cybernetics" also compared the brain with the analog and digital computers that existed in 1948. Towards the end it brought a sharp criticism of the emerging information society and ended with a note about chess programs.

Wiener clearly outlined the foreseeable and still existing problems of the relevance of statistical evaluations with the help of big data and data mining and the risk of spurious correlations as follows:

“I should like to mention in passing that the modern apparatus of the theory of small samples, at least when it goes beyond the determination of its own, specially defined, parameters and becomes a positive statistical method of inference for new cases, gives me no confidence if it does not a statistician who either knows explicitly or implicitly feels the main elements of the dynamics of the situation. "

- Norbert Wiener : Cybernetics (1948)

In view of the super-fast computing machines , as he assessed the first universal computer ENIAC , he anticipated ideas of artificial intelligence and thought about the limits of machine pattern recognition early on :

“How do we recognize the identity of a person's facial features, whether we see them in profile, in half profile or from the front? How do we recognize a circle as a circle, whether it is large or small, near or far away, whether it lies on a plane perpendicular to the direction of view to the center point and can be seen as a circle or has any other orientation and can be seen as an ellipse ? How do we see faces, animals and maps in clouds or in the spots of the Rorschach test ? "

- Norbert Wiener : Cybernetics (1948)

In 1949 Wiener designed a robot on three wheels. The moth responded to light and was one of the earliest mobile automatons to imitate the behavior of living things. It emerged more or less parallel to the electric turtles that the neurologist William Gray Walter created in England. The cute cybernetic animals were next to the stationary learning machines the most important contribution of science to artificial intelligence.

Wiener always followed a realistic approach, as was the case in his last work: God & Golem, Inc .; A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion . He was optimistic about new technical possibilities, such as the control of prostheses as a substitute for limbs and sensory organs; however, he considered it difficult to intervene in social, especially economic processes.

In 1961, Norbert Wiener added two further chapters to his basic cybernetics book: About learning and self-reproducing machines as well as brain waves and self-organizing systems. In it he takes up the magic of Goethe's sorcerer's apprentice , and he expresses himself very critically about the benefits of the learning machine :

“When we program a machine to win a war, we have to think carefully about what we mean by winning. A learning machine must be programmed through experience. The only experience of a nuclear war that is not catastrophically immediate is the experience of a war game. If we have to use this experience as a guideline for our actions in a real emergency, the values ​​of winning that we used in the programming games must be the same values ​​that we internally meant when a real war ended. We can only err in this to our immediate, uttermost, and inescapable ruin. We cannot expect the machine to follow us in such prejudices and emotional compromises that enable us to call destruction the name of victory. If we ask about victory and don't know what we mean by it, we will find the ghost knocking on our door. "

- Norbert Wiener : Cybernetics (1961)

The shortened term cyber originated from the term cybernetics and was used from the 1970s for a mainframe computer by Control Data Corporation . It later became an umbrella term for applications of virtual reality (such as cyberspace and cyber war ) and, more generally, for computer applications such as cyber crime and cybersecurity , and finally for cyborgs as a hybrid of humans and machines.


Wiener endeavored to combine scientific ideas, especially of cybernetics, with the history of philosophy, with Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz particularly influencing him. In his popular scientific work The Human Use of Human Beings - Cybernetics and Society , he lamented the social conditions in the USA and the attitudes of influential circles.

“Let us remember that whatever we think of the automatic machine of feelings, which it may or may not have, is the exact economic equivalent of slave labor. Any work that competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor. "

His comments on the workforce, peacetime armaments, rejection of automation contracts in accordance with his cybernetic principles, and refusal to work on military research projects caused the FBI to close its files only upon his death.

Norbert Wiener Prize

The Norbert Wiener Prize for Applied Mathematics is awarded every three years (since 2004, before that every five years) by the American Mathematical Society and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and is endowed with 5000 dollars. It is named in honor of Norbert Wiener and donated in 1967. In 2019 it was awarded to Marsha Berger .


Norbert Wiener was known as an absent-minded professor among his students. According to one report, around noon in 1964, he left MIT's Walker Memorial (then the canteen and student center on the east campus) and paused for a while to talk to some students. When he was finished with the conversation and wanted to go on, he asked her: “Did I go to the Walker earlier or did I come from there?” When someone replied that he had come from there, he said: “Thank God! So then I already had lunch. "

Fonts (selection)

  • 1948: Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. MIT Press (German edition: Cybernetics. Regulation and communication in living beings and in machines. 1948).
  • 1950: The Human Use of Human Beings - Cybernetics and Society. (German editions: Mensch und Menschmaschine - Cybernetik und Gesellschaft. Alfred Metzner Verl., Frankfurt a. M. 1952; as paperback: Ullstein No. 184, 1958).
  • 1956: Ex-Prodigy (1953), I am a Mathematician. (German editions: Mathematik - Mein Leben. Econ Verlag 1962 and Fischer Taschenbuch Nr. 668, 1965; also: Ich und die Cybernetik. Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, Taschenbuch Nr. 2830 undated [approx. 1971]).
  • 1958: Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory.
  • 1959: The Tempter. (German edition: The temptation. History of a great invention. Econ Verlag 1960). Indictment against industrial espionage and profit orientation, written as a novel.
  • 1964: God & Golem, Inc .: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion. (German edition: Gott & Golem Inc. Econ Verlag 1965).


  • Lars Bluma: Norbert Wiener and the emergence of cybernetics in World War II (= critical computer science , volume 2). Lit, Münster 2005, ISBN 3-8258-8345-0 (Dissertation Uni Bochum 2004, 245 pages).
  • Flo Conway, Jim Siegelman: Dark hero of the information age: in search of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics. New York, Basic Books 2005.
  • Peter Galison: The ontology of the enemy. Norbert Wiener and the vision of cybernetics. In: Hans-Jörg Rheinberger et al. (Hrsg.): Spaces of knowledge. Representation, coding, trace. Berlin 1997, pp. 281-324, ISBN 3-05-002781-9 .
  • Steve J. Heims: John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death. 3rd ed., Cambridge 1980.
  • Steve J. Heims: Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America. The Cybernetics Group. 1946–1953, Cambridge / London 1993.
  • Hans Joachim Ilgauds: Norbert Wiener (= biographies of outstanding natural scientists, technicians and physicians , volume 45). 2nd edition, Reubner, Leipzig 1984, DNB 840854560 , ISBN 978-3-322-00553-3 (print), ISBN 978-3-322-82217-8 (online, PDF, chargeable, 86 pages, 179 kB).
  • Pesi Rustom Masani: Norbert Wiener. 1894–1964 (= Vita mathematica , Vol. 5), Birkhäuser, Basel 1990, ISBN 3-7643-2246-2 (Basel), ISBN 0-8176-2246-2 (Boston).
  • Bulletin AMS 1966 with various articles on Norbert Wiener, including the biography of Norman Levinson.
  • Thomas Rid : Machine Dawn : A Brief History of Cybernetics . Propylaen Verlag, 2016, ISBN 978-3-549-07469-5 (496 pages, original title: Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics . Translated by Michael Adrian, first edition: WW Norton, 2016).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d e Norbert Wiener: Mathematics. My life . Autobiography. Econ, 1962 (328 p., American English: I Am a Mathematician & Ex-Prodigy . 1953. Translated by Walther Schwerdtfeger, first edition: MIT Press, published in Germany under the title "Ich und die Cybernetik. Der Lebensweg einer Genius" (Goldmann Volume 2830), ca.1970).
  2. ^ With Karl Schmidt. Dissertation title: A Comparison Between the Treatment of the Algebra of Relatives by Schroeder and that by Whitehead and Russell. Mathematics Genealogy Project, Wiener.
  3. ^ Wiener Sausage, Mathworld
  4. a b c Thomas Rid : Twilight of the Machine. A Brief History of Cybernetics . Propylaen, Berlin 2016, ISBN 978-3-549-07469-5 (492 pages, American English: Rise of the Machines. A Cybernetic History . New York 2016. Translated by Michael Adrian, first edition: WW Norton & Company).
  5. a b Happy Birthday, Cybernetics. In: Heinz Nixdorf Museumsforum (HNF). October 22, 2018, accessed July 13, 2019 .
  6. a b c d e f Norbert Wiener: Cybernetics. Regulation and communication in living beings and in machines . With the addition of 1961 learning and self-reproducing machines. Second, revised and expanded edition. Econ-Verlag, Düsseldorf 1963 (287 pages, American English: Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine . 1948. Translated by EH Serr, E. Henze, first edition: MIT-Press).
  7. Susanne Ebner: Why is everyone talking about "cyber"? Where the word comes from and what it means. Südkurier, August 14, 2016, accessed on July 13, 2019 .
  8. Michael Hagner: Cybernetics. Questions machines won't answer. Review of Thomas Rid, Maschinendämmerung. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. July 10, 2016, accessed July 13, 2019 .
  9. ^ Norbert Wiener: The Human Use of Human Beings . Free Association Books, London 1989, ISBN 1-85343-075-7 , pp. 162 (English, ): “Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present recession and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke, ”
  10. Flo Conway, Jim Siegelman: Dark hero of the information age: in search of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics . Basic Books, New York 2005, ISBN 0-7382-0368-8 , Childhood's End: “When his death notice appeared in the Boston Globe, agents in the FBI's Boston Field Office put the clipping in Wiener's file and closed the security investigation they had opened seventeen years before. "
  11. ^ Norbert Wiener Prize in Applied Mathematics. In: American Mathematical Society. Retrieved July 13, 2019 .
  12. ^ Bernard Widrow : Recollections of Norbert Wiener and the First IFAC World Congress. (PDF; 325 kB) IEEE Control Systems Magazine, June 1, 2001, accessed July 18, 2019 .