Norbert Wiener

Wiener about himself. Personal and professional.

"[M]y delirium assumed the form of a particular mixture of depression and worry... anxiety about the logical status of my... work. It was impossible for me to distinguish among my pain and difficulty in breathing, the flapping of the window curtain, and certain as yet unresolved points of the potential problem on which I was working. I cannot say that the pain revealed itself as a mathematical tension, or that the mathematical tension symbolized itself as a pain: for the two were united too closely to make such a separation significant. However, when I reflected on this matter later, I became aware of the possibility that almost any experience may act as a temporary symbol for a mathematical situation which has not yet been organized and cleared up. I also came to see more definitely than I had before that one of the chief motives driving me to mathematics was the discomfort or even the pain of an unresolved mathematical discord. I even became more and more conscious of the need to reduce such a discord to semipermanent and recognizable terms before I could release it and pass on to something else".
(Norbert Wiener, as quoted in Steve J. Heims, John Von Neumann and Norbert Wiener, From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980, pp. 147-148)

"This impatience was largely the result of a combination of my mental quickness and physical slowness. I would see the end to be accomplished long before I could labor through the manipulative stages that were to bring me there. When scientific work consists in meticulously careful and precise manipulation which is always to be accompanied by a neat record of progress, both written and graphical, impatience is a real handicap. How much of a handicap this syndrome of clumsiness was I could not know until I had tried. I had moved into biology, not because it corresponded with what I knew I could do, but because it corresponded with what I wanted to do. It was inevitable that those about me discouraged me from further work in zoology and all other sciences of experiment and observation. Nevertheless, I have subsequently done effective work together with physiologists and other laboratory scientists who are better experimenters than I, and I have made some definite contributions to modern physiological worker".
(Norbert Wiener, as quoted in "A Memoir: From Philosophy to Mathematics to Biology"
by Walter Rosenblith and Jerome Wiesner)

"One of the chief duties of the mathematician in acting as an adviser to scientists is to discourage them from expecting too much from mathematics".
(Quoted in D MacHale, Comic Sections, Dublin 1993)

"A professor is one who can speak on any subject - for precisely fifty minutes".
(The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society)

"Mathematics is too arduous and uninviting a field to appeal to those to whom it does not give great rewards. These rewards are of exactly the same character as those of the artist. To see a difficult uncompromising material take living shape and meaning is to be Pygmalion, whether the material is stone or hard, stonelike logic. To see meaning and understanding come where there has been no meaning and no understanding is to share the work of a demiurge. No amount of technical correctness and no amount of labour can replace this creative moment, whether in the life of a mathematician or of a painter or musician. Bound up with it is a judgement of values, quite parallel to the judgement of values that belongs to the painter or the musician. Neither the artist nor the mathematician may be able to tell you what constitutes the difference between a significant piece of work and an inflated trifle; but if he is not able to recognise this in his own heart, he is no artist and no mathematician".
(Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth)

"We mathematicians who operate with nothing more expensive than paper and possibly printers' ink are quite reconciled to the fact that, if we are working in an active field, our discoveries will commence to be obsolete at the moment that they are written down or even at the moment they are conceived. We know that for a long time everything we do will be nothing more than the jumping off point for those who have the advantage of already being aware of our ultimate results. This is the meaning of the famous apothegm of Newton, when he said, "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants".
(I am a Mathematician)

"The Advantage is that mathematics is a field in which one's blunders tend to show very clearly and can be corrected or erased with a stroke of the pencil. It is a field which has often been compared with chess, but differs from the latter in that it is only one's best moments that count and not one's worst. A single inattention may lose a chess game, whereas a single successful approach to a problem, among many which have been relegated to the wastebasket, will make a mathematician's reputation".
(Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth)

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