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Originator of cybernetics

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Callie JonesTuesday 18 March marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, who made some of the 20th century’s most significant contributions to mathematics.

He was born on 20 November 1894 in Columbia, Missouri, into a Jewish family of German and Polish origin. A child prodigy, he was educated at home until 1903. He graduated from Tufts University, Massachusetts, with a BA in mathematics in 1909 at the age of just 14, and received a PhD from Harvard just three years later, aged 17.

He suffered from poor eyesight and was rejected several times by the army. His eyesight also affected his ability to carry out accurate practical experiments in science subjects and steered him towards the more theoretical world of mathematics.

He quickly began to produce spectacular results which brought him worldwide fame, and he performed highly innovative work on random processes, in particular Brownian motion. He produced a rigorous mathematical description of “a physical process subject to random change”. In the late 1940s he applied this description of Brownian motion to difficulties in the quantum theory that had been debated by Einstein, and he showed that quantum theory, to the extent that it was based upon probability, is in fact consistent with other branches of science.

During the 1939–45 war he worked on problems in firing anti-aircraft guns at moving targets, and produced a theory on the prediction of a stationary time series, introducing statistical methods into control and communications engineering. This led him to formulate the concept of cybernetics, the science of self-controlling mechanisms, which emphasises the importance of feedback and communication on actions and goals. He applied the concept to both organisms and machines, and it still has relevance today in automation and computer programs. He was passionate about, and promoted, cybernetics for the rest of his life.

Wiener died on 18 March 1964 of a heart attack, in Stockholm.

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