Norbert Wiener
1894-1964

Wiener's contemporaries on somewhat strange Professor

Two months before his death, in a ceremony at the White House, Norbert Wiener was awarded the National Medal of Science. The citation by President Johnson said: " . . . for marvelously versatile contributions, profoundly original, ranging within pure and applied mathematics, and penetrating boldly into the engineering and biological sciences".

"I must have met about 20 people who had won Nobel prizes, or were to win them later, and quite a few people one meets around Cambridge, Mass., do not move their lips when reading, but it seems to me that Norbert was literally more gifted than anyone else".
( Deutsch, K.W., "Some Memories of Norbert Wiener: The Man and His Thoughts", IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, pp. 368-372, 1975)

According to ( Deutsch, K.W., "Some Memories of Norbert Wiener: The Man and His Thoughts", IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, pp. 368-372, 1975)
Wiener went through what he himself called a pessimistic "tailspin" at least every three weeks. When they first met during the war, Wiener's first words were: "I am terribly depressed. How are things going?"

An excerpt from "Recollections of a Chinese Physicist," by C.K. Jen (Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1990)
"As I near the end of my personal recollections of life at M.I.T., it is impossible to refrain from relating my eye-witness stories about a brilliant man, Norbert Wiener, and his lovable eccentricities. I took two semester courses under Professor Wiener: one was Fourier Series and Fourier Integrals, and the other was, I believe, Operational Calculus. It is vivid in my memory that Professor Wiener would always come to class without any lecture notes. He would first take out his big handkerchief and blow his nose very vigorously and noisily. He would pay very little attention to his class and would seldom announce the subject of his lecture. He would face the blackboard, standing very close to it because he was extremely near-sighted. Although I usually sat in the front row, I had difficulty seeing what he wrote. Most of the other students could not see anything at all. It was most amusing to the class to hear Professor Wiener saying to himself, "This was very wrong, definitely." He would quickly erase all he had written down. He would then start all over again, and sometimes murmur to himself, "This looks all right so far." Minutes later, "This cannot be right either," and he would rub it all out again. This on- again, off-again process continued until the bell signaled the end of the hour. Then Professor Wiener would leave the room without even looking at his audience".

Phyllis L. Block, graduate administrator in the Department of Mathematics (MIT) recalls: "His (Wiener's) office was a few doors down the hall from mine. He often visited my office to talk to me. When my office was moved after a few years, he came in to introduce himself. He didn't realize I was the same person he had frequently visited [before]; I was in a new office so he thought I was someone else".

Robert K. Weatherall, vice president for alumni and director of the Office of Career Services and Pre-Professional Advising, related another Wiener story told to him by an MIT alumnus who "was driving in New Hampshire and stopped to help a tubby-looking man with a flat tire.
He recognized Norbert Wiener and asked if he could help. Wiener asked if [the alumnus] knew him. Yes, he said, he had taken calculus with him. `Did you pass?' asked Wiener. `Yes.' `Then you can help me,' said Wiener".

Wiener as a prototype of an "absent-minded professor".
These anecdotes (collected by Howard Eves, a math historian) are told about him:

He went to a conference and parked his car in the big lot. When the conference was over, he went to the lot but forgot where he parked his car. He even forgot was his car looked like. So he waited until all the other cars were driven away, then took the car that was left.
When he and his family moved to a new house a few blocks away, his wife gave him written directions on how to reach it, since she knew he was absent-minded. But when he was leaving his office at the end of the day, he couldn't remember where he put her note, and he couldn't remember where the new house was. So he drove to his old neighborhood instead. He saw a young child and asked her, "Little girl, can you tell me where the Wieners moved?" "Yes, Daddy," came the reply, "Mommy said you'd probably be here, so she sent me to show you the way home".

One day he was sitting in the campus lounge, intensely studying a paper on the table. Several times he'd get up, pace a bit, then return to the paper. Everyone was impressed by the enormous mental effort reflected on his face. Once again he rose from his paper, took some rapid steps around the room, and collided with a student. The student said, "Good afternoon, Professor Wiener." Wiener stopped, stared, clapped a hand to his forehead, said "Wiener - that's the word," and ran back to the table to fill the word "wiener" in the crossword puzzle he was working on.

He drove 150 miles to a math conference at Yale University. When the conference was over, he forgot he came by car, so he returned home by bus. The next morning, he went out to his garage to get his car, discovered it was missing, and complained the police that while he was away, someone stole his car.


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