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Norbert Wiener 1909, Honorary Degree 1946
celebrate our distinguished alumnus, the Tufts University
Mathematics Department has instituted the
Norbert Wiener Lectures,
initially funded by an anonymous gift to the University, as well as
the Wiener Award for an
especially gifted student.
Wiener did highly innovative and fundamental work on what is now called stochastic processes and, in particular, on the theory of Brownian motion--that is, the construction of a rigorous mathematical description of a physical process that is subject to random change--and on generalized harmonic analysis--that is, the analysis of functions into periodic components and the generalizations of such an analysis--as well as significant work on other problems of mathematical analysis. From a long list of published works, three papers stand out: "Differential Space," Journal of Mathematics and Physics, 58:131-174 (1923); "Generalized Harmonic Analysis," Acta Mathematica, 55:117-258 (1930); and "Tauberian Theorems," Annals of Mathematics, 33:1-100 (1932). In 1933 Wiener was elected to the National Academy of Science but soon resigned, repelled by some of the aspects of institutionalized science he encountered in the Academy. In the same year, he shared the Bôcher Prize, offered every five years by the American Mathematical Society, and was honoured by the society by being invited to present the Colloquium Lectures, published in 1934 as "Fourier Transforms in the Complex Domain." Much of the work appearing in this volume had been done in collaboration with Raymond E.A.C. Paley, who was killed a year before the book was finished. Wiener's mathematical work was so influential that by now literally thousands of mathematical research publications refer to him. The main threads of his work are woven throughout the fabric of contemporary mathematics.
During World War II Wiener worked on gunfire control, the problem of
pointing a gun to fire at a moving target. The ideas that evolved
led to "Extrapolation, Interpolation, and Smoothing of Stationary
Time Series" (1949), which first appeared as a classified report and
established Wiener as a codiscoverer, with the Russian mathematician
A.N. Kolmogorov, of the theory on the prediction of stationary time
series. It introduced certain statistical methods into control and
communications engineering and exerted great influence in these
areas. This work also led him to formulate the concept of
cybernetics. The term he coined is the root of neologisms such as
I would say his courage and his sensitivity. He was a man of enormous scientific vitality which the years did not seem to diminish, but this was complemented by extreme sensitivity; he saw and felt things for which most of us were blind and unfeeling. I think this was partly due to the overly strict upbringing he had as a child prodigy. Wiener was a man of many moods, and these were reflected in his lectures, which ranged from among the worst to the very best I have ever heard. Sometimes he would lull his audience to sleep or get lost in his own computations---his performance in Göttingen was notoriously bad. But on other occasions I have seen him hold a group of colleagues and executives at breathless attention while he set forth his ideas in truly brilliant fashion. Wiener was among those scientists who recognized the full implications of the scientist's unique role in modern society and his responsibilities to it in the age of electronic computers and nuclear weapons. I well remember how upset he was the day after Hiroshima was bombed. When I remarked that because of Hiroshima the war against Japan should now come to a speedy close without much further bloodshed---a common sentiment at the time and the official justification still heard today---he replied that the explosion signified the beginning of a new and terrifying period in human history, in which the great powers might prove bound to push nuclear research to a destructive potential never dreamed of before. He also recognized and detested the racism and arrogance displayed in using the bomb against Asians.
Sources and Further Reading
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