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Harmonies of Disorder

Leone Montagnini
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Springer Biographies
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
William J. Satzer
, on

Norbert Wiener was a man of many talents. He thought of himself first as a mathematician, as his autobiography I Am a Mathematician plainly declares. Yet his interests were not so narrowly confined. He started his academic life with a Ph.D. in philosophy and had evidently planned a career as an academic philosopher. But his reputation relies on important work in many disciplines. As a mathematician he is known for a broad range of work in areas such as harmonic analysis, Brownian motion and the Wiener integral. Engineers remember him for Wiener filters and signal processing. He was among the earliest advocates of electronic computing, and the invention of the term “cybernetics” is attributed to him. He was also among the first to write about the social impact of the new information technologies.

The author of the current book sees Wiener as a humanist and a kind of Renaissance man, a model of sense for our current turbulent times. This book is part of Springer’s series of biographies of “scholars, innovators and pioneers in all fields of learning”. Nonetheless the author is clear that this is not just another Wiener biography. He calls it instead an essay about the thoughts of a man he calls a “sort of Leibnitz fallen from the sky in our time”. Although Wiener came from Harvard and his father was on the faculty there, the author astutely notes that “this integration of the refined Brahmin into the world of the engineer with greasy hands” is a main feature of his intellectual biography and it is what makes him such an interesting philosophical and scientific figure.

The book mostly treats Wiener’s life chronologically and generally follows his autobiography. It has little to say about his early education. Wiener describes this himself in Ex-Prodigy, the first volume of his autobiography. His father had an overwhelming influence on his life up into his mid twenties, and it had a lasting effect. (Tiger Mothers could hardly compare with the elder Wiener.) The author alludes to this, but really picks up the story with Wiener’s doctoral work in philosophy. Wiener was strongly influenced by the American pragmatist philosophers, particularly Josiah Royce whose seminar on the scientific method, he says, was “some of the most valuable training I have ever had.”

Wiener’s achievements in mathematics are only addressed in passing. The author focuses instead on his interactions with other scientific and engineering disciplines. He emphasizes that Wiener was intensely interdisciplinary, not in any trendy sense but as an inherent part of his personal makeup. This struck me clearly when I recently re-read I Am a Mathematician, but perhaps others who have written about his life haven’t given it the attention it deserves.

Most of this book considers Wiener’s scientific work in a vast range of projects between 1919 and 1964. With it the author describes the development of Wiener’s concerns with the social consequences of technology that became more outspoken after 1945.

Wiener’s collaborations are described in some detail. They are notable and perhaps even remarkable when one remembers how socially awkward he considered himself. He worked closely with engineers and physicists beginning very early in his career at MIT. With the physician and physiologist Arturo Rosenblueth he investigated questions of feedback and control. Later he collaborated with McCulloch and Pitts on related problems in neurophysiology. Wiener also contributed extensively to discussions with von Neumann on electronic computing.

This is a thoughtful portrait of Norbert Wiener and well worth reading. The author provides a complete bibliography of Wiener’s published work as well as a large bibliography of related material.

Bill Satzer ( was a senior intellectual property scientist at 3M Company. His training is in dynamical systems and particularly celestial mechanics; his 

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.