August 18, 2004
John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: from Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death by Steve Heims
On the face of it, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener have little to do with each other. They did not collaborate in their professional careers and did not know each other very well. But the subtitle to the book is the key to Steve Heims intentions in putting the biographies of these two men into one book. He wants to discover what in the background of a scientist is responsible for such brilliant minds to collaborate in the construction of weapons of mass destruction and policies of mutually assured destruction.
John von Neumann was aggresively brilliant and made several contributions to mathematics and physics. He was also a key technical adviser and proponent of the nuclear proliferation conducted by the United States in order to target the Soviet Union. Norbert Wiener was arguably equally brilliant but sacrificed several aspects of his career as a scientist because he refused to create anything that could be misused to a destructive end. He practised an applied moral and social philosophy in his attitude towards technology. This is the juxtaposition that Heims offers in this book. A story of two men and their research programs.
What Heims seems to be after is the moral or ethical core of any scientist. Should you fund your research if you know that it will lead to an eventual misuse of it antithetical to your moral values (although von Neumann seemed to truly hate the Soviet Union enough to consider mutually assured destruction a valid option for the greater good). Heims gives us a crucial insight into this question. It is even more to his credit that Heims follows this objective without sacrificing any details in the biographical details of these scientists.
Those interested in these issues should also read "The First Circle" by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, where issues of ethics in research are covered in a fictional setting in a research station gulag in Stalinist Russia.
%T John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener %T :from Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death %A Steve Heims %I MIT Press %D 1980 %G ISBN: 026258056X (pb) %G ISBN: 0262081059 (hc) %P 547 %K science, biography
Review written: 1999/08/15Posted by anoop at August 18, 2004 12:48 PM