Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener The Father of Cybernetics

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Book title: Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener The Father of Cybernetics

Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener The Father of Cybernetics Technical details/features and description:

  • ISBN13: 9780465013715
  • Condition: USED – Very Good
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Child prodigy and brilliant MIT mathematician, Norbert Wiener founded the revolutionary science of cybernetics and ignited the information-age explosion of computers, automation, and global telecommunications. His best-selling book, Cybernetics, catapulted him into the public spotlight, as did his chilling visions of the future and his ardent social activism.
Based on a wealth of primary sources and exclusive access to Wiener’s closest family members, friends, and colleagues, Dark Hero o

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4 thoughts on “Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener The Father of Cybernetics

  1. 51 of 52 people found the following review helpful:
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Norbert Wiener – MIT’s “dark hero”, March 20, 2005
    Alwyn Scott (Tucson, Arizona USA) –


    Having been a Tech student during many of the years covered by “Dark hero of the Information Age” – undergraduate in physics from 1948 to 1953, graduate student in electrical engineering from 1957 to 1961, and postdoc in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) from 1961 to 1962 – I found this book fascinating to read. Norbert Wiener’s portly figure waddling about the campus, popping peanuts from his jacket pocket into his open mouth, rapt in conversation, or staring blankly into middle distance was familiar to all as is well described by authors Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. Although aware of the “communist threat” supposed to stem from some MIT faculty members in those years, it was both interesting and chilling to read that the FBI had investigated even Wiener – interesting because his FBI dossier was a boon to his biographers, chilling to learn that our benighted federal agents had found this kindly, bumbling man a threat to the republic.

    Based on many interviews with surviving friends and family members and on Wiener’s own autobiographies, the authors provide a highly-readable account of his unusual childhood as a prodigy, force-fed on a diet of germanic poetry and mathematics by his obsessed father – a Harvard professor of modern languages who arrived as a penniless immigrant to the US from Russia at the age of 19. Obtaining a doctorate from Harvard at the age of 18, Norbert Wiener eventually obtained an academic position in the MIT mathematics department, where he taught and conducted research for 45 years until his death in 1964.

    Wiener is widely known as the “father of cybernetics” which he famously defined as the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine”. In its heyday, cybernetics was of great interest to anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, neuroscientist Warren McCulloch, and mathematical physicist John Neumann, among others, and Wiener’s popular books on the subject brought the implications of the emerging information age to the attention of the general public. In a depressing story that is particularly well told, the authors reveal how the machinations of Wiener’s “emotionally-deaf” wife prevented him from interacting with an exciting cadre of cyberneticians that was brought to RLE in the early 1950s, with the aim of making MIT preeminent in the interdisciplinary area between electronics and biology.

    Less well presented is the authors’ evaluation of Wiener’s fundamental contributions to these areas. Although his 1926 papers on Fourier transform theory may have cleared up some fine mathematical points, these papers and Wiener’s subsequent writings on the subject go unnoticed by those electrical engineers who teach and study the subject at MIT. To negative feedback theory, Wiener made no fundamental contributions at all – the essential idea sprang from the brow of Harold S. Black, a young engineer at the Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) in 1927 and was fully worked out by BTL applied mathematicians, including Henrik Bode, whose famous book “Network Analysis and Feedback Amplifier Design” we all studied. In neuroscience, Wiener seemed unaware of the truly important analysis of nerve-impulse propagation published in 1952 by Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, and of the basic theory of biological pattern formation proposed by Alan Turing in the same year. Wiener’s contribution was to see the importance of feedback control systems in biology and the social sciences and to make his cautionary views known to the general public.

    Despite these minor lapses, Dark Hero is highly recommended for all who would understand the birthing of the information age.

    Alwyn Scott

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  2. 38 of 38 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    I was there as Prof. Weiner’s Student, October 11, 2005

    When I first saw the title “Dark Hero of ….” I had to chuckle with the image it engendered of Norbert, dressed in a floppy Batman constume, goutee, thick glassed over his mask which of course hid his identy waddling down the corridors of Building 2, fighting crime in Tauberian Theorems.

    The authors wrote a magnificent opus on a great man who, in today’s environment, would have been classified as a victim of child abuse. Their facts and presentation carried me back to that era. But, I am uncomfortable with the intensionality that the term ‘Dark’ might leave in the reader so grant me the right to give an added facet.

    As a senior at MIT during the 1959-1960 semesters I had the honor working with Weiner. Up front, my review arises from an unabashed gratitude and affection for a man whose influence and help were instrumental for all the good things that later transpired in my life over the last 45 years.

    One day in the fall of 1959 I was walking near Weiner’s office after having come out of Dirk Struik’s office from a discussion of an item in the Advanced Tensor Analysis course I was taking from him. Just as I was passing by his office the classical Norbert Weiner yelled out ” young man, can you come in and finish the calculations on the board”. Honestly, I was totally naive and did not know anything about him except having seen him in the corridors.

    “Sure” I said. As I entered the office he walked out. There on the dusty chalk board were a facsimile of a spread sheet, with rows of numbers scribbled across the board. I could not admit that I had no idea what the numbers represented, let alone what I was to do. Ego is a wonderful goad for creative problem solving. Seeing a number that looked like the sine of 30 degrees I quickly deciphered that the alternating lines were discrete values of the sine function, the parallel lines were filled with some varying numbers from a seemingly smooth function, and the next line looked like some multiplication/ addition of both. Norman Levinson’s course in Complex Anaylsis came to the rescue. Weiner was performing a discrete fast Fourier Transform. Ten minutes later Weiner came in and saw that I had almost completed the spread sheet.

    Looking over his glasses he asked “What are you doing here?”. “Helping you, Professor” I responded, startled. “Can you come back tomorrow for some more work?” “Sure”

    It turned out that he was perfroming a spectral analysis on a section of EEG readings Dr. John Barlow had given Weiner.
    I eventually had to hand read the red graph and number the amplitudes. The picture appears in CYBERNTETICS 2nd edition.

    One Saturday he directed me to “sit down and write”. After a few lines I had the timerity to inquire what the heck was I doing.
    His answer: “I’m dictating the upgrade to my book CYBRENETICS”. My mistake was to inform him that I could touch type. Zap! Three hours later I threw in the towel. From then on, after math classes I would be sitting typing and learning more ideas and mathematical insight than any of the past 3.5 years. Note, no word processor, no electric type writer. The old fashioned finger toughening for Karate thrust kind.

    My many mistaken sheets were then handed over to Weiner’s secretary who produced a finished draft.

    When the galleys came out I, among many others, reviewed and corrected them.

    Weiner informed me that he considered “his students as colleagues” and he gave me the honor and respect that it entailed.
    I noticed over the years that the truly great and self assured, including Doc Edgerton in Electric Engineering, treated with respect f those ‘under’ them. The not so great and their undeserved pomposity are legion in all walks of life.

    A few vignettes of his Puckish sense of humor which were seen quite often are in order.

    One Saturday, Weiner, who had to check his urine for sugar, came into the office to check it. “Good, all is well”, he smiled, “Here, take it and dispose of it”.

    My response was as brash as anything I had ever done “Prof. Weiner, I have the deepest respect for you. I have had my rump fall asleep while tying your manuscript for hours. But, you take your G.. D….d sample yourelf”

    Weiner burst out in laughter “Well, I tried.” and waddled off. I just keeled over with laughter.

    Weiner was subject to many folks who came to ‘worship at his feet’ and try to have him help on hair brained schemes.
    Once such soul came in one day and proceded to blather. Norbert rose, took him by the elbow with a “I know someone who will really be able to help you”, and dumped into Struick’s office. From across the hall we heard Struik’s Dutch yelling, while chasing the man out. Then, flushed faced, Dirk leaned into the office and hissed “Norbert, stop dumping your garbage into my office!” , and…

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  3. 12 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    dark and unsung, July 5, 2005
    Charles E. Nydorf (New York, NY USA) –

    This is really two books; a fascinating intellectual history of one of the seminal thinkers of the last century and a sometime painful personal story. I haven’t made up my mind about the second book but the first is well worth reading. Did you know that Wiener anticipated Heisenberg’s uncertainty theory, in a very general form? He presented the idea that the freguency of a musical note and its timing cannot both be measured with precision in a talk given in 1925 with Heisenberg in the audience. Of course, Heisenberg deserves all the credit for explaining, two years later, that this idea applies to quantum mechanics but Wiener had already seen the underlying logic. He was similarly prescient with respect to information theory in that he recognized the interconnections between ideas about probability and signalling. In at least one way, the authors explain, Wiener may still be ahead of his time: He recognized the importance of analog as well as digital computation.
    The personal story may be a little one-sided. The authors are very hard on the women in Wiener’s life, his mother and his wife but rather indulgent toward Leo Wiener, the father who was hell-bent on making his son into a prodigy. Maybe, the women had to be a little monstrous to protect Wiener from his dad.

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