MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Norbert Wiener Meets Albert Einstein

Letter from Wiener to his Sister Bertha, 1925

 

Page 1 of Wiener's letter
Read the entire letter

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), a professor of mathematics at MIT from 1919 to 1964, was a child prodigy whose father, a professor of languages, supervised much of his early education at home. At age nine he enrolled in high school and at 11 matriculated at Tufts College , from which he graduated three years later. He embarked on a varied program of graduate studies at Harvard and elsewhere, including philosophy, zoology, and math. By 1915 he was teaching philosophy at Harvard and by 1919 had joined the Mathematics Department at MIT. As an adult, Wiener was known for his innovative, cross-disciplinary thinking, boisterous personality, and idiosyncratic behavior. In 1925, while on one of his frequent trips to visit European mathematicians, he had a chance encounter with Albert Einstein on a train and described the exchange in great detail in a letter to his sister Bertha.

"At a nearby table I saw a strangely familiar face, and remarked to my comrade, 'I'll eat my hat if that isn't Einstein.'" Wiener introduced himself as a mathematician. The famous physicist, he wrote, "began quizzing me [and] was quite impressed." Wiener provided his own assessment of Einstein as follows: "Personally he is simple, direct, unaffected and rather winning. His enormous intellectual energy, his clear vision and sense of physical reality, and his enthusiasm strike the most casual observer. He is aware of his great position, but not in the least conceited. He does not expect relativity in its present form to last many decades, and hopes that further work will soon go beyond it." The conversation also touched upon such issues as scientific and political rapprochement, about which Einstein was somewhat pessimistic, although he did not feel that another world war would "mean the end of civilization." Renewed war in Europe, he predicted, would pass the "leadership of civilization...to America and ultimately to Asia."

The current "World Year of Physics" (2005) celebrates the groundbreaking insights developed and papers published by Einstein in his so-called "Miracle Year" (1905). Norbert Wiener's papers (MC 22) include correspondence, articles, clippings, photographs, and other materials related to a wide variety of mathematical and scientific issues. The collection is available for research in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118. A finding aid is available online.

 


MIT Libraries Publication Policy
MIT History
MIT Institute Archives