Modesty Is Not a Virtue: Norbert Wiener

Book Review

Norbert Wiener: 1894-1964
By Pesi R. Masani
Basel, Boston, Birkhauser Verlag, 1990, 416 pages, $79.50

Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas
By Norbert Wiener, introduction by S.J. Heims
Cambridge, MIT Press, 1993, 159 pages, $19.95

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days.
--- Milton, Lycidas

Toward the end of his life, Norbert Wiener seemed to be obsessed with the value of his contributions to science. I have this from a number of independent sources. My own view of the man is that he was concerned not with the short term -- say one hundred years -- but with the long term -- say five hundred years.

For the short term he was certainly secure. Even as Wiener is now fading in living memories as an individual and as a personality, his name has passed -- a process that began even in his lifetime -- into the lifeblood of mathematics through such concepts as Wiener measure, Wiener process, Wiener-Hopf equations, Paley-Wiener theorems, the Wiener extrapolation of linear time series, generalized harmonic analysis. Wiener was the man who put the word "cybernetics" into our current vocabulary, and every child who watches TV or plays with a computer seems to know what the "cyber universe" is all about, even though Wiener himself might have been revulsed by what he saw.

The long term? Ah, there lies the sweet-sour ambiguity of life. In a scientific time scale that now extends from the Big Bang to the Big Collapse (or to the Exponential Death), in an age when in-depth histories of the first three minutes of the cosmos have been written, what is the definition of the short term, or of the long?

I was nine or ten years old when I first heard of Wiener. My older brother, who was then working on an ScD in chemical engineering at MIT, was taking one of Wiener's courses. Wiener was in his late thirties at the time. I suspect now that my brother hardly needed the mathematics for his experimental work on the kinetics of the combustion of carbon and that he took the course merely to be able to say that he'd been a student of an acknowledged master.

Naturally, my brother couldn't resist telling the family about the genius at whose feet he sat. I asked him what the course was about, and I remember my brother's response as though it had been yesterday: "Wiener talks about what the answers to certain problems would be like, assuming that the problems had answers." Naturally, I didn't understand a word of this: It sounded like hilarious double-talk, but it was my first introduction to the language of existential mathematics.

Years later, when I myself came to take Wiener's course, his reputation for genius and mild eccentricity had grown. He was one of those rare child prodigies who make good; he was a public figure who was soon to become a guru, an oracle, a much quoted writer, a self-advertiser, and whose pronouncements on such issues as the future of labor under the impact of automatization or the strategic aspect of the cold war would be well publicized. In short, in my undergraduate and graduate days Wiener bestrode the narrow world of mathematics like a colossus, and he was one of the three or four colossi who did so.

Pesi Masani, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh, knew Wiener well in his last years and did a number of joint papers with him. He edited Wiener's Collected Works and has written a splendid biography. Masani's book embraces Wiener the man, the logician, the mathematician both pure and applied, the social, economic, and scientific philosopher, the novelist, the eccentric, the source of legend, and yet more. What is missing, perhaps, is Wiener on the Freudian couch, and what is present to the extent that I find it slightly redundant is Wiener as an object of adulation. If, therefore, you want to learn about Wiener, you can do no better than to start with Masani. An earlier book by Steve J. Heims, equally meritorious, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death (MIT Press, 1980), offers an extended comparison of the two men as regards their scientific visions and social philosophies.

What I should like to turn to now is the recent posthumous publication of an early manuscript of Norbert Wiener, entitled Invention. The book was published in 1993, the year of the centenary of Wiener's birth in circumstances that are themselves interesting.

Sometime in the early 1950s, Jason Epstein, an editor at Doubleday (who subsequently rose to great prominence in Random House and the publishing world), suggested that Wiener write a short and popular book on the philosophy of invention. Wiener agreed and accepted an advance. By June 1954, he had completed a manuscript. He then lost interest in the project, in favor of other writings (e.g., his 1959 Random House novel, The Tempter), and returned the advance. The publisher did not press the matter, and the manuscript was left on the shelf to gather dust.

After Wiener's death, Gordon Raisbeck, his literary executor and son-in-law, was naturally more concerned with the published books, and the existence of the manuscript became a dim memory. The Wiener Papers were transferred to the Institute Archives of the MIT Libraries in the early 1980s. Some years later, archivist Helen Samuels, working through the papers, found the manuscript and brought it to the attention of Larry Cohen of MIT Press, who decided to publish. Steve Heims, the author of the von Neumann/Wiener book, provided an excellent introduction.

Invention is a short, flawed, and fascinating book. It is flawed in the sense that it suffers from multiple focusing. Does Wiener want to discuss historical instances of invention from a technical point of view? Does he want to discuss them from the point of view of the larger metaphysical assumptions of science, e.g., changes in the intellectual climate that thrust probability theory to the front of the stage? Does he want to display his own triumphs? Does he want to reopen an old scandal, taking up the cudgels in favor of Oliver Heaviside (the good guy), who Wiener claims was edged out of fame and fortune by Michael Pupin and AT&T (the bad guys)? Does he want to talk about the long-term effects of inventions on society? Does he want to warn against "megabuck science," large laboratories, and the rise of a generation of scientific and medical practitioners more interested in the dollar than in scientific truths?

The answer to all these questions is: Yes. In this short book, Wiener wants to do and does all these things. Any one of them might have been given a full-length treatment. Sometimes he does them well, for he could be an excellent writer and could write a clear and pungent paragraph, but sometimes he constructs his discussions out of boilerplate.

What fascinates me most about Invention is Wiener's taking up, time and time again, of the role of the individual in invention. Individual genius must not be denied, and the products of such genius, he says, are "acts of Grace."

In an essay on what was then called the Great Man Theory of History, William James wrote, "The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual; the impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community."

Focusing largely on the individual, Wiener develops no general theory of invention and society. He is certainly aware of the community, but in this book his concern is largely with the individual creator. He talks about the true rewards, both achieved and denied, and the false rewards; he talks about the suffering experienced by the individual for the simple reason that genius is by definition an extremely rare event. It is fascinating to observe how, when Wiener's collar gets hot as he writes about things that upset him, his choice of words, generally elevated and elegant, becomes colloquial and strident.

Ultimately, he set this manuscript aside and turned his attention to other scientific matters. Even as he did so, he wrote a full-length fictional treatment of the Heaviside-Pupin story. It had been in his mind for easily 20 years; as early as 1941, he had tried to interest the radio and Hollywood actor Orson Welles in it.

"False modesty is not one of the major virtues," Wiener writes near the end of Invention. The desire for fame, established over the long term, burned strong in this noble and extraordinary mind. Reviewing the full spread of Wienerian mathematics as presented by Masani, we can agree that he had much not to be modest about. His unsuccessful attempt to talk Hollywood into doing a realistic version of how genius operates suggests the impossibility faced by those who wish to explain, by manuscript or by formula, what is fundamentally an act of Grace.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at

Reprinted from SIAM News Volume 28-02, February 1995 (C) 1995 by Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics All rights reserved.