Norbert Wiener was one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. Harmonies of disorder is a brilliant biography that carefully details every aspect of Wiener’s background and contributions without using any equations, making it accessible to general readers with an interest in science and its history, as well as to those with more knowledge of engineering, computing, philosophy, physiology, or mathematics. It is fascinating to see, among other contributions, his impact on the development of electronic digital computers.
A prodigy receiving his BS in mathematics at age 14, Wiener earned his doctorate from the Harvard philosophy department at age 18. Early chapters carefully delineate his exposure to the philosophical thought of that time. Philosophers Benjamin Pierce and Josiah Royce discussed a statistical approach that influenced Wiener in his study of Brownian motion, which turned out to form the basis for many of Wiener’s contributions, reflected in the title. Brownian motion is a random movement, disorder, but harmony is the Fourier analysis that finds the regularities. Benoit Mandelbrot was influenced by Wiener in his development of fractals, which comes from these studies.
Wiener’s father was a professor of Slavic languages at Harvard, and Wiener wanted to begin his career in the Harvard philosophy department but did not get that appointment. He did get a position in the MIT mathematics department in 1919 and stayed there for the rest of his career. At MIT, Wiener worked with engineers, and together they were able to advance technology. Wiener credited Kolmogorov in Russia with similar ideas, but Kolmogorov’s work did not have the engineering applications. Wiener saw the similarities between communication and control in the signals that need to be analyzed. He saw the information content of these signals as the essence, abstracting from the electrical and mechanical details. One of his major works, Extrapolation, interpolation, and smoothing of stationary time series, was published as classified during WWII and in 1949 for the public.
Part 2 covers the years between the wars, whereas Part 3 covers Wiener’s government work during WWII, which includes his impact on the development of computers. He favored binary computing, which seemed very limited in an age where analog computers were more familiar. Other computers used mechanical elements, but Wiener stressed the speed of electronic computing, the need for which was underappreciated. His proposal for an electronic computer in 1940 was rejected. Later he did discuss these issues with John von Neumann. Wiener began work with Warren McCullough and Walter Pitts on precursors of neural nets, adding human signals to the control and communications package. After Hiroshima, Wiener was careful to spend more time on physiological research that he thought would have less possible use in war.
The author, Leone Montagnini, has done a masterful job of detailing Wiener’s work in context. The bibliography includes 18 pages of Wiener’s works and 29 pages listing other authors. It would have been nice to have the dates of all of Wiener’s publications and to have a general index in addition to the name index. The reader is privileged to see the thinking of a great genius and how significant developments of the 20th century came about. Every comprehensive library should have this book.