“Memories of Norbert Wiener” – Moderator — Deborah G. Douglas, PhD
Well it is a fantastic privilege to join you all here I have the opportunity to take a small subset of this conference around MIT on our very own “Viener Weg” or Wiener walk as they say at MIT. This reflected Norbert Wiener’s love of wandering around and this conference as I look at the program is an intellectual wondering around of some of you were talking quite explicitly about Wiener’s ideas, his biography, your friendships with him. Others of you are in a sense looking forward and saying what have been the consequences of these ideas but I’m the caretaker of artifacts that belong to institute. The MIT museum is quite unusual among university museums in the sense that our subject is the whole of the institute rather than say art or anthropology or geology or rocks. For this event we … Arthur came to me and asked if there were some resources that we could share with the conference participants that might remind us about Norbert Wiener.
The slide show that you will see on the screen reflects nearly 150 different images that are in the museum’s collection and they alternate between his youth and college experiences to his professional days and experiences. I hope that you find those evocative. On the front of the room many of you have started to read one of the most interesting letters that you could possibly imagine. It dates to 1925. It was written by Wiener to his Bertha and it is when he was in Germany and travelling on the train and chance to meet Albert Einstein. This 12 page letter characterizes that meeting and the wide range of topics that they discussed over a six or seven hour period. Including his prediction, or Einstein’s prediction, that – this was 1925 – that eventually world power would go to the American’s and ultimately to Asia. It’s a very evocative and interesting letter and I encourage you if you haven’t had a chance to read it to do so.
You also have a nearly life-size cutout of Norbert and this is your chance to have a selfie with Norbert Wiener if you set your camera to black and white and we bring it up against the wall you could take a particularly effective images to say that this is a conference that was back to the future. Finally I want to begin our discussion this evening with this observation that over my tenure at the MIT museum I’ve had the opportunity to speak on many occasions with alumni and faculty and staff. If a conversation ever lags I found that all I needed to do was say the words, “Did you know Norbert Wiener?” All of a sudden particularly with alumni of a certain generation the stories kept coming and coming. Many of them of course refer to the anecdotes that you all are familiar with and we may share some of them in the course of the evening. All of them I think have this in common which is that it makes clear that Norbert Wiener was among the constellations of superstars that inhabited the MIT universe especially in the 30s, 40s, 50s time frame.
Some of the others people in this room who are MIT alums may recognize people like Harold Edgerton of Stroboscopic photograph fame. He’s Mr. Milk drop and bullet through the apple images. Charles Stark Draper or doc Draper he’s the guy who ran the instrumentation lab that built the Apollo guidance computer that perhaps Dave Mindell will talk to you a little but about tomorrow morning. Doc Louise, Warren K. Lewis the fellow who co-invented fluid bed catalytic cracking that’s the way all of our petroleum is refined to this day. Vannevar Bush, Mr. Computer himself and differential analyzer. There were all these superstars and Norbert Wiener was right in that pantheon. At MIT we engrave names of famous scientist around the attics of our buildings. That was done in 1916 when the buildings were first opened. If we were to do it again today I can bet top dollar that Norbert Wiener’s name would be up on the attic of MIT.
What Wiener did with all of his personality corks, with his brilliance, with his charm, with his interdisciplinary, with his persistence, vision was to enable a young person that 14, 15, 16, 17 year old who in that mid-20th century America loved science, loved technology, didn’t quite fit in. Wiener was one of those figures that said there is a place for you at MIT. That this environment that could embrace everyone from Edgerton to Norbert Wiener and everyone in between that this was an environment in which you could thrive and the way you were going to thrive was that you didn’t silo yourself but rather made connections with other disciplines with other departments that you made friends with people and I think that that attribute that Wiener embodies in his life is crucial in understanding something fundamental about MIT. I would just merely open these proceedings and say this is a session with the intent to allow people here to reflect more informally about maybe personal stories.
Some people in this room actually knew Norbert Wiener and have their own stories to tell. Others have you encountered Wiener or his ideas at some point in your career and they’ve had some transformative impact on you that’s reflected in your papers and work here. This is an opportunity to share that perhaps it will spark connections among people in this conference that heretofore haven’t had an opportunity to meet or have a conversation with. Without further ado I’m going to turn the mic back to Arthur and then over to you.
Hold on to the mic because we’ll pass it on. First of all I want to thank you Debbie and now we’re going to call on the Flo and Jim to say a few words and they’re going to be our banquet speakers tomorrow night as you know. I’m also calling on them to make an interesting introduction, I hope it’s interesting.
Dr. Pickering made a comment this morning in his remarks to the fact that Wieners children had really let down his revolution by not taking forward the vision and the spirit and the interdisciplinary project that Wiener and his colleagues, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, and so many others in the Macy conferences set forth and we know that that’s true. We also have had an image since we began our work on dark hero if Wiener is the father of the information age then in a sense we’re all his children and especially those of you who work in fields that he sired or inspired or that span off from his work. When we also turn to each other and say, “Well that’s not entirely fair because Norbert Wiener had real children and real grandchildren.” Some of them are here with us tonight.
Yes absolutely. One of the great interviews we had while we were researching dark hero was with Norbert Wiener’s oldest grandson Michael Norbert Raisbeck and we are so delighted that he’s with us this evening and I think he’s prepared to give us a few comments. Michael.
Well thank you very much. Now a minute ago somebody talked about the high intellectual level of this conference well it’s about to go down to the level of a 6 or 7 year old kid. I thought I’d tell you a little bit about what it was like growing up with grandfather Wiener. A couple of things you probably already know and Flo and Jim’s book covered some of this, he was kind of a kid himself, made him a really neat grandfather. I’ll tell you a couple of stories about the kinds of things he did. Here’s one, learning to read. My grandfather Wiener taught me how to read. Actually it was one of these … There’s a moment that every kid hits where letter, sound, another letter, another sound. Letter, letter, letter, sound, sound, sound word, and then the light goes off and you realize that these characters on a page do it for you. They were down visiting us in New jersey.
I’m pretty sure from the time I was about four years old, I might not again have been four yet but grandfather Wiener and grandmother Wiener were visiting with us for a couple of days. About every 45 minutes I would come out to him with another letter that I didn’t quite know and he would tell me all about that letter and what that sounded like and then I would go back and I work a little more trying to understand … I don’t know if it was Dick and Jane and Spot something every simple. I think when we got to Q he told me, “You don’t need that one just yet.” In three or four days I learned how to read Dick, Jane and Spot and from there the rest is history. He was down there for a purpose I didn’t know what the purpose was at the time so my mother and I were in Morris town New Jersey she was shopping. I was a little kid. I was a shrimp. Like him I was a little short in a vertical stature and maybe a little larger in the horizontal stature. Mom is pushing me around in a carriage, a stroller thing not a … You know the kind of thing.
We’re in a store and I look up and I say, “Mommy where’s grandfather?” Because of course I’d just seen him earlier in the day. She says to me, “Why? He’s down in Princeton talking with Professor Einstein dear.” A vicious old biddy came stomping up to her and said, “What a story to tell a little boy like that.” I remember it well. My mother didn’t flinch I guess she was used to it. That letter from 1925 was certainly not the first time he met Einstein. What other kinds of things did he do? Well I said he was kind of … He was kind of a kid. He had the enthusiasm of a kid, he had the interest of a kid, he also had the insecurities of a kid and these are things that haunted him. I don’t know if anybody here was old enough to remember him wandering around at MIT going up to people and saying, “Well what do you think of my work?”
Well everybody loved his work but he was … He had a little something in him that was still a kid and he certainly loved to play games and we used to play scrabble with him. Can you imagine playing scrabble with a guy that can speak, what, 3 or 4 languages well and about 40 of them badly? On language by the way you said he could what is your cheapest cigar in 40 languages? Family stories they kind of develop and evolve over time the number I remember was 80 but 40 is probably more appropriate. Anyway he had lots of pieces of lots of languages and he loved language kinds of games. Now my grandmother was about as German as you can get. I mean all of the angles were 90 degrees perfect. She spoke I think … I guess her background was in language and teaching and she spoke I don’t know 4 or 5 of them absolutely fluently and could be misunderstood in every single one of them. My grandfather on the other hand could butcher almost any language as his father could before him and be completely understood.
There was more to language than that but in any case he liked to play scrabble. I remember going over to their house in Belmont. This is when I was a little older maybe I was 10 or 12 with my sister Lucy who sends her regards. She’s a biologist up in Vermont at UVM and she’s got a whole lab full of animals that she can’t leave but she says hi. We would play scrabble with Grandfather Wiener. We had a special set of rules for my little sister Lucy, she could actually have the scrabble wordbook and she could open it up anytime she wanted and pull out any word she found. For me it was a little tougher, I couldn’t use the scrabble wordbook for all those wonderful two and three letter combinations that you need but I could use the dictionary. I could use any language that I wanted to use, any word in any language. Grandfather Wiener could only use a word if I knew what the word was because he beat us every time anyway but it was great. He would get into projects like games and start to write extra rules.
There’s a story that I’ve heard, I wasn’t there maybe Flo and Jim know a little bit more about it of a night spent rewriting the rules of monopoly. Apparently that was quite something. What else can I tell you? He was a wonderful fellow just to be around when he was relaxing. He had a couple of things that he liked to do he liked to collect mushrooms. He was obviously pretty good at it because we all survived and he liked to climb mountains although climbing mountains he did rather slowly. He was fairly portly at the time and his blood pressure was kind of high and his doctor didn’t want him rock climbing but he would just plod along and it might take him two, three, four hours to get up the trail. This is of course up in the white mountains and he continued to do it pretty much all his life. Those are a couple of reminiscences. It was a riot. Would you like to take this and continue the show?
How about the toys?
All kinds of things. I remember as it was this little steam engine. I wish I could find it. I have a feeling it disappeared when I grew up and left home. It was a steam engine that was maybe, the boiler was maybe what 27 centimeters long, 8 centimeters in diameter. You put those little sternal blocks in it, the kind of thing that you used to heat up the chicken bombs at a reception or something like that. It had little rubber bands and pulleys, that thing was a hoot. You get that going and kind of turn fans, that was a wonderful toy. Then my grandmother got me a set of lederhosen. Ever worn a pair of those things? I guess they’re more comfortable after they’re broken in. No they’re not? Okay, I always wondered. Fortunately I outgrew the lederhosen before I broke them in.
What other sorts of things can I tell you? Did somebody say something back there? I didn’t hear? Well I thank you very much for putting up with me for a couple of minutes and I hope you all enjoy the rest of the program. I hope I get to see you at the banquet.
Thank you Mike, thank you so much.
You hold it because you’re going to pass it on to somebody else. I want to thank you and since we’ve already started the precedent of having a relative talk I’m going to have one of my relatives talk. I’d like to introduce you to my wife Lily and I’m going to say something that she doesn’t like me to say but for those of you from MIT who remember dean Fassett he … Well nominally under him was the MIT but he delegated the running of that press to Lily and that’s how she interacted with Norbert. Please give us some history.
This really brings me back.
Use the mic, go ahead.
This really brings me back to a very happy time in our life when Arthur was a graduate student at MIT. He was getting his PhD, I was doing what we called back PHT putting hubby through and working at MIT press. Dean faucet my boss was Norbert Wiener’s editor. He was busy writing his book X Protégé. He visited our office two or three times every week. I can still hear his footsteps down the hall, I can picture his face. He would come and visit with Dean Fassett. They would be going over the [gali 00:20:43] proofs. If Dean Fassett wasn’t there, then we would do. He would talk to all of us. When the book finally came he would say, “Pick a page, any page.” I’d say “116.” He would say exactly what was on that page. We would say 239, he would say exactly what was on that page. That was a source of fun for us, we always looked forward to his visits.
When we complimented his and said. “Professor Wiener, you have a fantastic memory.” He said, “No, I have a terrible forgetary.” Anyway the book was finally published and he gave us all signed copies of it. It’s somewhere in our house. One day soon, I hope we can find it. That’s my recollection.
What year did [inaudible 00:21:41] started in?
I think I was there from 1951 to 1953.
How was [inaudible 00:21:50], you or Dean Fassett.
Dean Fassett was his editor.
He did. I think he enjoyed that process a lot. He would ask questions like, “What do you think of my work and what do you think of what I just wrote?” It was a very interactive process.
Did you see him get emotional about those early childhood [inaudible 00:22:12]?.
No, I never saw that. We did see a lot of him and he was a to of fun. I think he did. He didn’t seem to mind is Dean Facet wasn’t there. We would do just fine.
Thank you. Dr. Tom Sheridan, I thought I saw … You’re right up front. If we could have you say a few words of your interaction with Norbert.
Okay, very few words. I was a graduate student and then later an assistant professor doing control theory and getting in the human machine interaction stuff when Norbert Wiener was still around. I went to his seminar, they called it The Skeptic Seminar and I can well remember one of the things that I learned that he underlined in that seminar was that you can never believe something until after you have entertained skepticism about it. I always like that. I always thought that was a good bit of philosophy. I actually had lunch with him once. He did all the talking, he was a pretty old man at that point. Then just after I got my degree and become assistant professor, the youngest possible, I went off to Moscow for the first meeting of the international federation of automatic control. It was a very interesting time because Norbert Wiener of course was a hero to the soviets at that time.
I mentioned in the biography session that some colleague that although religion was not in vogue in The Soviet Union at that point in time, the religion of Norbert Wiener in cybernetics was. The Americans weren’t using the word cybernetics except to talk about Norbert Wiener but the soviets sure were. That was also the time we went off to Moscow. This is a little apart from Norbert Wiener. Just after the U2 spy plane. Do you know about that incident? Had been shot down. The Americans were denying it by a day after we got to Moscow, the cornered all of the Americans they could find, ushered them to the front of a very long line at a museum where the remnants of the spy plane were on display and paraded us through to show us. Indeed, there was spy plane, it has signs on it that said General Electric and Motorola and things like this that you could identify. I was so impressed with Wiener.
I read all of his books including the biographies and got [inaudible 00:25:36] Golam Incorporated had some lessons in it that I just continually quote about the comeuppance of technologists and thinking that they could make computers do anything including things that they’re not sure about their software and the computers can do things that the computer was programmed to do but the software engineer never intended to happen as we all know. He was my hero and I pushed my own career and very much in that direction in terms of human machine interaction and that’s what I’m … I’m retired now but I’m still mucking away with some of that stuff. That’s my comment.
Thank you Tom. Thank you for helping. I want to call of Dr. Marshall Reber who’s sitting near the back there.
I suppose I was asked to talk to you because I ended up being Norbert’s last teaching assistant at MIT. I went to MIT grad school, late in the 50s to study physics and very quickly realized that Norbert had quite an [inaudible 00:27:12] reputation and not knowing exactly what his mathematics was about. I was afraid to take his course, I thought of audit instead. At that time was a small seminar and he would lecture not only on mathematics but on all sorts of subjects that would seem to be of interest to him at the moment. There was only four or five people in the course and one of them, a fellow about 10 years older than I was had just this uncanny ability to realize when he would write on the blackboard a subscript of some sight. He was famous for mis-writing subscripts on his mathematics but this one fellow was very sharp and was able to get into that. It turned out that the too of them had intellectual and moral discussions.
Norbert was a person who had very strong feelings about what he called intellectual honesty and how that affected people and their relationship to each other. This goes back if you recall hearing that early in his career and Norbert was about to graduate from Harvard at 16 and they said, “This is much too young a fellow to graduate.” You better go to England for a while and study some mathematics there.” Indeed he ended up studying with Whitehead and Russell. A curious that there was a book in Norbert’s library that he had received from his educational experience at that time. It was the third volume of [inaudible 00:29:04] and Russell. Inscribed on the title page was a gift from the author. That was really Russel talking. Russel had one insight into philosophy that I think is appropriate. He thought that one of the greatest philosophical problems of the age was not being paralyzed by uncertainty.
This is something that I recall at the time of early 60s, there was a great discussion amongst some people about the conundrum of nuclear war, anti-ballistic missile defense. Should one improve either assure the destruction or should one work on the defense against this assured destruction. It turned out that the argument would be, if you had a better defense against the ballistic missiles, perhaps the enemy would just go around and come up with a better offence where would it all end. It turned out the older fellow who kept catching the subscript miss things. His name was Don Brennan and the next year after he left the course, he and Herman Con founded and institute. Results I guess they title talks with Mike [inaudible 00:30:34] about test subjects at the time, mutual assured destruction. This was Don Brennan’s contribution of the situation. He thought that the whole idea of assured destruction was crazy and mad.
Curiously enough, about 20 years later, Don was asked to participate in the Reagan Star Wars program but unable to live with such uncertainty, he blew his brains out with a shotgun. I think Norbert had an amazing ability to concentrate but in his mind’s eye, he would moan how his father Leo, he said could read and write in 57 different languages and he felt so stupid because he could only do that in 13. There was a time where he was temporarily in the hospital, his secretary and I decided to visit him. We veered the room where he was when we heard someone speaking. Turns out he was Margaret’s hand and reciting [inaudible 00:31:49]. That was a very tender moment that stuck me that he had feelings of a tremendous intensity of warmth and love although he didn’t express them all the time to most people. Anyway it’s too, he couldn’t suffer fools very lightly. There were people who would try to ride around in his coattails.
It was not unusual to see him turnaround and not say anything from such people. They would appear in the office at time trying to talk about cybernetics subjects which they thought would be appropriate. It turned out that I finally did take the course and became a research assistant in Rosenblith biophysics communications lab. Norbert was very interested in making some very high resolution brain wave analysis at the time. This required using a [inaudible 00:32:57] cage which was sound proof and to make very long EEG recordings of our [inaudible 00:33:05] length. A couple of us who were research assistants, that was out job, it turned that you had to catch electrodes in the scalpel in order to do this. I think on realizing that we were probably biasing the results, we tended to only ask good looking secretaries to participate. Often a group of students and family and people would end up going to Joyce Chen’s Chinese restaurant.
The secretary, family. Norbert claimed to be a vegetarian in fact I think his father was a vegetarian but it was clear that he was being secretly compromised on occasion when Margaret would tell Joyce to put some chicken in there. Intellectual honesty which was exhibited by in which people’s names were changed to protect the guilty, that came out on one of his concerns when he wrote The Tempter. The Tempter was actually a book that you didn’t want to write, changing the name to protect the guilty but he was assured by MIT lawyers that this involved the telephone company and perhaps would thought to be liable-less in the case. He was of strong opinion that a fellow by the name of George Campbell who was a stunt at MIT before him.
George Campbell who was a student at MIT before him and who had worked for the phone company when they were originally in Boston. They had a research vision that only went to New York City some years later. There was a great patent dispute that came about. Norbert thought that American pattern laws were very inferior. All they were was licensed to eventually to go to court and scientific problems would be decided by judges who didn’t know science. As a result would end up and indeed turn out they would hire compurgators. This are people who in the middle ages, if you had more people swear for your idea that would out balance the other people. I guess we call them paid consultants today. He thought that the whole business of the loading coil and the patterns involved which were finally assigned to a puban really were due to George Campbell. In fact he’s right George Campbell was probably very much an instrument in the development of complex analysis in the electro engineering field. You can see why he changed the names to protect the guilty when he wrote that book.
This was a problem that involved such people as Oliver Heaviside in England and it’s interesting if you were to read the chapter some day and having mind that’s not really about what it’s about but it’s about a real situation. Another idea in which Norbert was sometimes confronted with problem of his intellectual honesty was when people would try to suggest that he might come for a year and talk at their university and he would say how much of that, my salary is so much, cost so much to go there that’s all I would need. MIT had a different view of this they said, “No you really should put in for a couple of 100% of what it’s going to cost because we have overhead we have other people who we have to take care of.” This caused problems in occasion if he was not going to places. Anyway I think it’s interesting to note that during the First World War and Norbert went to the army and his title was computer. He was a computer. He used this mechanical adding machine the whole room full of others punching away computing artillery cables.
Anyway he also had a strong believe that take home exams for students was the way to go. It was much fair if a student could use whatever resources were available including the library to demonstrate his understanding of the course material. This of course caused a lot of consternation amongst the research teaching assistant who eventually had to make up this exams. Anyway one of the things that Norbert really enjoyed during these pro seminar courses that he gave, was relating the latest antidote. Indeed he was the source of the latest funny story about his supposedly absent mindedness and the one he continually related during the last couple of years was the one where he had moved in Belmont. They’d only moved from a short distance to house not too far away but of course the first day upon going back home after the end of the work day he appeared at the old house.
Scratching his head wondering what to do, he noticed a small child, a small girl playing on the sidewalk and thought well I’ll ask her say “Little girl do you happen to know where the winners might have moved to?”, “Sure daddy just follow me.”
Thank you, before we call on anybody else I have a thesis that because there was numerous anecdotes that he really was faking it. I based on two things, one what you just said that here in class we talk about the antidote, he makes them surface and the other that my wife talked about he really had a photographic memory. How do you reconcile a photographic memory we could do all its details with the so called absentmindedness. My thesis is that he really was faking it and enjoyed all this anecdotes about him. Anyway that’s my theory. We are opening it up, who would like to participate or tell us something they know about Norbert or their own relation with Norbert. It’s informal please feel comfortable talking. Otherwise I’m going to expose you to a whole bunch of anecdotes, go okay.
Well when you heard just now about the moving in the house and a little girl, there’s another version of that and that is that he had a little piece of note paper that he wrote the address of the new location down. Though during the course of the day and the course of his class he turned the paper over and he used it to write something down he was thinking about. He said no scramble that up and throw it away, so he threw it away. That’s a version of it anyway. I have so many different stories here. There’s one here in the academic year in 1949, 1959 I was a graduate student in the math department at the University of Vilonia. The department chair was Stewart Canes who did a great job in inviting important scholars in the mathematics field to give lectures during the semesters. Among the guest we heard from were people like John [inaudible 00:42:23] and Norbert Wiener. Doctor Wiener from MIT I believe discussed cybernetics which is relatively new.
Doctor Canes invited the speaker to meet some of his graduate students at the Kent’s home one evening for cocktails and casual discussions. I was about one of the about 25 to 30 students who were there. About 20 students were American or Caucasian and then the five to ten others were Chinese students. During the regular class sessions the Chinese basically sat together didn’t speak much and didn’t socialize with the English speaking classmates. I must say that this didn’t stop them from being one of the best students in their classes. I thought that their English ability was probably poor. The two groups in the home were as usual gathers separately. Doctor Wiener arrived after most of us had been there for some time. Doctor Canes and his wife greeted him at the door as he looked around the room he spotted the Chinese groups standing together at the far end of the living room. He immediately run toward their group shouting to them in Chinese.
Everyone in the room was quite surprised but not as much as the Chinese. It was clear that they did not expect to hear their native tongue coming from American. He obviously knew the language quite well because very quickly that group was deeply involved in warm and lengthy discussion. The rest of us were quite surprised at this turn of events. Since none of us understood a word spoken during the evening doctor Wiener favored the Chinese group over the rest of us. They had a happy lively discussion while the rest of us were somewhat bewildered. I learned later that after Doctor Wiener after getting his PhD at a very young age spent several years teaching in China where he obviously learned the language long before the rest of the western world realized how important China would become. Here another one. Obviously star by the undue pressure by many institutions on publishing publicity Wiener wrote this tongue and cheek essay built around the classical monkeys and typewriters.
The essence of his comment here is summarized. We all know that given an infinite number of monkeys each with typewriters and with enough time the monkeys will eventually precisely generate everything that has ever been written. This is all well and good stated Wiener. We also know that one of the key issues with this random compensation process is that the work must be tossed aside if any character is wrong hence a lot of waste is produced. In his association of this random process to the publisher perish issue, Wiener made the critical conclusion that unless we become inundated with worthless paper we must keep the monkeys away from the typewriters. That is the problem will be defined any good stuff among the numerous amount of garbage that will be produced. Professor Wiener used to have lunch at Walker Memorial and those who were part of the tour yesterday saw Walker Memorial and heard about that. The main dining hall in this campus.
Frequently he used to join the table where a number of Latin American students were gathered probably to practice his Spanish language skills. His conversations usually dealt with the music dance and culture of South America. Among the facts that he related which I was not aware of was that in Paraguay the dominant language is [inaudible 00:45:49] derived from the ancestral anchor language and not Spanish. Professor Wiener used to walk to and from Walker Memorial along the endless cordials of the MIT buildings always holding a finger lightly touching the wall shoulder high as he walked. One such walk he run across one of the Latin American students and he stopped to ask some details about the [pachanga 00:46:12] dance. When he was finished he hesitated and then asked the students to show him in which direction he had been going because as he explained if he’s been walking east he had not eaten lunch and if he was walking west he had already eaten.
There were many different versions of that particular one. This is an anecdote that was told to somebody else that professor Wiener once walked into a sophomore class and gave one of his advanced lectures to the class. It was only after he finished and there were no questions that he realized that this was not his regular class and that the lecture had gone completely over the students’ head. I didn’t know this maybe Flo and Jim did. He wrote a few short science fiction stories you wrote that which he contributed to a tech engineering news and he use a certain amount of … I Norbert for this stories. He spoke 13 languages. He would dismiss that as unimportant because his father spoke over thirty. A friend whose husband was an MIT he graduated student in the 1952, ’52 period saw Professor Wiener at the intersection of two busy corridors, two corridors facing a corner with a book at each hand trying to read both at the same time.
A professor of mine … That’s another person at the North Eastern University was a student of Professor Wiener and related this anecdote to the class in 1971. Professor Wiener had just written down a complicated expression that no one in the class really could really follow. One student raises hand and said “Professor, I don’t understand how you got that expression, could you do it again?” Wiener thought for a moment proceeded to write the same expression again on the blackboard. Student said, “I’m sorry but I still don’t understand.” Professor Wiener thought some more and after a little while wrote the same expression again. The student said “My apologies sir but I still don’t see it.” Wiener turned to him and said “Well I don’t know how I can help you, I just derived it three different ways for you.” I’m turning a lot over because I have a lot of all different ones here.
Norbert Wiener’s office was in the Southeast corner of MIT building too. It faced down the corridor to a dead end. He was often uncertain which class period was beginning and not what his class schedule was. At the beginning of the period that he suspected might be his he stared down the hall sticking his head into each classroom he passed. “Is this my class yes?” If he got back to his office with no hits he concluded that it was not his period. We have some about him driving but we know one ourselves right? He attended a conference I think it was in Providence Rhode Island which isn’t too far from here. He drove and when the conference was over that night someone offered to give him a ride back to the Boston area and he gladly accepted it. Next he reported to the police that he can’t find his car, it’s still in Providence of course. Norbert Wiener realized that he should not drive a car which was no doubt much to the benefit of Boston divers, he was just too absent minded to drive safely.
He rode to and fro work each day with a car with Professor Green. One day Professor Green noticed that Norbert who always sat in the car quietly thinking was making large up and down motions with his hand. After watching this several times Professor Green asked Norbert “What are you doing?”, “Erasing the board.” Wiener replied. Norbert Wiener seemed to just float down the hall as he walked deep in thought to keep himself on track. He often run a little figure along the walls. Students several times tempted fate by placing objects in his path. He had avoided them. Because in Norbert’s gearth he had a leaning [inaudible 00:50:57] to bounce his substantial frontal weight hence his view of the path closed in front of himself was somehow restricted. One hand was tracing the wall the other was holding his cigar generally not lit just chewed. Didn’t you tell us the story about the students putting some obstruction up? Was that somebody who told us that story?
It wasn’t me but just briefly having [inaudible 00:51:26] is a great condition in MIT and so students constructed him in the doorway and would have them counted down to the room that he was to go, the classroom or office. With additional doorway [inaudible 00:51:43] delight he went right into the women’s dress room.
Let’s see if I have anything more. I think in one of the sessions today you heard about Cambridge and the snow and the result of snow in Cambridge. In fact when we lived in Cambridge years ago, you could tell the difference between the neighboring town say Arlington and Cambridge as far as snow and you could drive along Arlington and then you knew you got in to Cambridge because there was a snow collected. The mayor of Cambridge has been at that time quoted to have saying God put it there let God take it away. In any event this is one of Wiener events here. The snow piles had build unusually and in Cambridge in 1949. The snow piles had build unusually big dams at the curbs Mass Avenue. Now the dams were melting creating wide deep tapered lakes. An improvised board provided a bridge from street to sidewalk. Folks exiting MIT at noon time had formed a line patiently waiting turn to cross. There’s the ramp and you can step on the ramp and avoid the water.
Professor Wiener approach curried deeper in thoughts oblivious to normal things perhaps visiting the coup to again ask the cleric how sales of his book were progressing. Oblivious and impatient he bypassed the bridge waiting through the lake as if it was not there. His shoes filled with ice water. His mind’s focus was such he showed no signs he noticed none of his audience showed any surprise all understood that legends do things differently. One or two more. Going from the MIT student barracks to class, I often saw two janitors engaged in this conversation. One was always leaning on his sweep broom. It’s clearly obvious they were janitors. Years later a photo of Norbert Wiener revealed the identity of that second janitor, it was Norbert. A man who could readily and regularly hold incise of discussions even with janitors. I never had Professor Wiener as a teacher expect through his books but he taught me a great lesson. Never judge a book by its cover. The obvious can be wrong. Well I have several more but you got the vein anyway.
All of this things have been collected over the years and the question is how much are true, how much are myth? As I said my thesis is that he enjoyed it and that he most likely helped and contributed to that. As I say for evidence that indeed was faking it was the photographic memory exhibited by how he interacted in his books and how he announced in class he was glad to tell people about the anecdotes. Anyway, last chance, going, going, going. Anybody want to say anything else about their interaction?
I have a question about your comment about Michael [inaudible 00:55:15] is here. What do you … [inaudible 00:55:18] a notion that your grandfather was fully aware of the story [inaudible 00:55:25].
Well, he certainly enjoyed stories. On the other hand, he got so focused on things. I’m sure he had a photographic memory and he took the photo, put it away and forgot where he put it. It would pop out later. I know that the time we got our [inaudible 00:55:47] Brown. Grandmother was not pleased. I know that one was true. I’m pretty sure about the house in Belmont because the little girl was my mother. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.
Sure, makes sense. Any other comments, questions, observations?
[inaudible 00:56:23] my experience in Russia because one aspect which was probably unusual for us completely. We had his books translated. I suspect that the reason why his books were translated was not because of his scientific things but because he was very leftist. He must have been against the war in Vietnam, against modern everything and therefore the photo of him under portrait of linen was not accidental. It’s very typical for American professors to be leftist and he was not the first leftist probably but he clearly was. Therefore they published his books which was very unusual and for one reason. Because I’m Jewish myself and in Russia, in the soviet times, Jews were not exactly welcome. His books were probably the only ones which not only just had the word, Jew, Jew, Jew all the time but talked a lot about persecution of the Jews in different times. Antisemitism in America and of course in Nazi Germany and everything.
His personal experience and it was not from a religious, it was exactly from how we viewed judaism or Jewishness, it was not a religion, it was ethnicity. He was not very polite about orthodox Jews and religion and in his books he showed it. I still remember the phrase. I still remember it, I remember reading it and it was like a vision. He said that one of the rabbis that he read compared the life of the pious person to the hair floating in milk. He said that image made him nauseous all the time when he thought about orthodox religion. That’s exactly the impression that we got in Russia from the orthodox religion as well. Even like to you he might have been absent minded, unusual. To us he was to some extent that boy who cried that the king is … Has no clothes. He told it like it is. We learned the stories about Garrett Birkhoff, about other mathematicians, about some Russian mathematicians.
One story which was relating to us perfectly well was that Kolmogorov the famous Russian mathematician nearly got shot because of him. Because what happened is that he was of course doing a lot of things. He stated with logic that went into probability theory and everything and he got … He loved applications. He didn’t just love to prove theorems. When he was in logic, he would try to apply logic. He actually started what we know called interval computations, that’s my area now. When he was in statistics, he loved applications. It’s not like some scientist, he was forced to and then when the war ended, he gladly went back to pure theory. No, he loved applications. Kolmogorov was the same way. Kolmogorov also has started with logic, then went to probability theory then went to applications. Then after the war, when the cold war started and the scientific relations ended, some journalist asked Wiener, in all innocence, who do you think in The Soviet Union is doing research similar to yours.
He thought about it and he said, “All my life Kolmogorov was doing exactly what I was doing. I bet Kolmogorov is doing the same research on render processes and how to use them to shoot down planes and everything in The Soviet Union.” To him it was an innocent remark and he now he mentioned Kolmogorov was exactly the leader of that particular research in The Soviet Union. They immediately wanted to arrest him and shoot him right away because he was immediately relaying what he was doing to the enemy. It took a big resistance for the [inaudible 01:00:36] of science to prevent Sterling from offering to shoot Kolmogorov right away. We love these stories. A lot of things about for example to Prague and I went to the synagogue where supposedly Golem is hidden. That’s what I learnt from it from the Wiener’s books, not from some other stories.
A lot of stuff that we know is from Wiener and that attitude to science when for example after the war he went to China and some people were kind of back because the long period when … He said the best way is not to catch up but to jump forward, just do something new. That was the advice we took to heart, he was implicitly he was the teacher to the whole generation of people in Russia, especially the people who had Jewish origin. I think he was like an idol to us. A lot of us had his photo and I’m looking at this photos and two of them I recognize, they were reproduced in his books and these were the photos that we all had. It’s not like the photos you could buy on the store but you could actually go to a patient process of zooming it in and just putting it there so in the house itself like people who have a more humanitarian it was usually Hemingway. In the houses where scientist lived, it was usually Venetian.
Thank you. Anyone else like to participate? Okay Ted.
I don’t really have a direct anecdote about him because I was a little young but I met a gentleman once who was a little than I was by seven eight years. He used to mow the lawn for the Wieners in Belmont and he used to tell anecdotes about the issues of interacting. Because apparently sometimes he would be mowing the lawn and professor Wiener would be walking on the lawn and he would be mowing and professor Wiener would be walking directly in front of where he was mowing. I think in those days a lawn mower was a hand pushed lawn mower. Apparently he would be smoking the cigar and not noticing that the person was trying to mow the lawn and he’d have to avoiding him as he tried to mow. It was just like a moving statue we said in the middle of the lawn. The other question I had actually is a question. How many of the people are from the direct Wiener era remember specific interactions between Wiener and people Drapper and like Edwardson and things like that. Because there were other people with eccentricities and eccentricities and strange behaviors too.
Any takers? I don’t know if Debbie you have any answer to that. I wasn’t aware of any direct interaction. There were people like [inaudible 01:04:07] and so on who would capture in the hall and bring you in to show you what he was doing and things like that. My first introduction to Chinese food was through Stark Draper but I never saw any real direct interaction among them.
In a couple of years MIT is going to celebrate the centennial of the construction of what we call the Bosworth’s buildings and the move to Cambridge. When the institute was founded it was actually located in back bay, Copley Square Boston. The abiding objective of the architects who worked on that building design was that it be very flexible and open that the rooms in the building could be enlarged, made smaller so they put all the utility stay in the central corridor and the paces on either side of that corridor you could go down, you could go up, you could go left or right. The reason for that was that the architect William Welles Bosworth felt like departments tended to become kingdoms at most universities and he felt that they should be able to expand or contract as needed as the times warranted. The first exception to that rule was the construction of the aeronautical engineering building. What’s known as building 33 today, which is one the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street. That building was completed in 1928.
It was not connected to the main campus for another 30 or 40 years. The people involved in aeronautics were isolated from the rest of campus. I think bore out the architects concerns by that fact, I mentioned to the people on the tour yesterday afternoon is that if you look at the faculty members that Wiener had the most contact with. The professors that they had, they were on specific corridors that he commonly traversed to get to building two. A lot more physicist, a lot more chemists, some electrical engineers. Tom you’re smiling because you know that’s all on that side of campus. He just didn’t have much interaction for example with the civil engineers, the naval architects maritime engineering department which was on the other side of campus. Buildings to shape us and Wiener more than most wandered around intentionally but even he didn’t go into nook and cranny at the institute.
I’d say Joyce Chen’s was a great mixing bowl for people and he had such a good relationship with many in the senior administration come the 1950’s. These are people James Killian became president at that time. He knew Killian when Killian was a youngster of Technology Review. As he ascended up the administrative ladder. He didn’t have any reticence to barge into his office. If you’ve read Flo and Jim’s books, if you’ve not encountered Norbert Wiener before, some of the behavior patterns can be shocking and you could think, “He must have been really annoying.” Michael your comments I think are really important and the end of the book when you’re characterizing the reaction of his colleagues upon learning the news of his … I think premature death at 69 of a heart attack. Was that they gathered at Joyce Chen’s, they pulled out a slip paper to send a collective note to Margaret his wife.
They simply wrote on the top, “We loved him.” Signed his name. That’s such a powerful evocation, because here’s this guy who would be interrupting and going up and talking to you and wondering around and you her him barging into Killian’s office and Rosenblatt’s office and saying, fire this guy or that guy and you think, “My God how could you stand him?” The truth is that he was beloved. I think those anecdotes that absolutely have been embellished over time made him more so. I would add this note which is that there are certainly anecdotes to be told about all of the faculty members. I shared one Doc Draper, loved a drink. He had a rule, you couldn’t drink before 5:00. He had a special clock made in his office and he had a switch underneath his desk which you could press and it would advance the clock much more rapidly.
You’d have a conversation. Maybe you started and it was 3:00 and by 3:15 he’d say, “Look it’s 5:00, time for a drink.” Because he would advance the clock. There are ample anecdotes to be told about other faculty members. I’m certain the fact that Wiener repeated some of these stories helped amplify them. I also think that it was the fact that cybernetics was hard and when he died as many of you know and have talked about was controversial here in The United States. It was in the midst of the Cold War. In some ways those characters have the effect of neutering him or refocusing your attention. How many of you in this room honestly, raise your hand, know what [inaudible 01:11:33] analysis is and could do one. Yeah, this is unusual crowd but in most rooms, you would be in the minority.
I think that many people might have no idea what Wiener’s mathematics were and related immediately with the human anecdotes. Whereas with a figure like Draper [inaudible 01:12:08], you point it to the milk drop photos. You may have no idea how he made it but you think, “Wow that pretty neat.” With Drapper you say, “I don’t really understand this initial guidance business but by God he brought Kennedy’s mission to life. He got a man to the moon and he brought him safely back by using that Apollo guidance computer and system.” That was one of Wiener’s challenges that his crowning scientific and mathematical achievements were much harder to explain to a later person.
Thank you. With that, we’ll call this session to a close and thank you all for participating.