W. Grey Walter and Norbert Wiener

WGWdeLatilp1 In

Owen Holland’s original paper "Legacy…." , he gives a description of Grey’s first impression of him …

  "Walter’s own view of Wiener can be seen in a letter to Professor Adrian in 1947: We had a visit yesterday from a Professor Wiener, from Boston. I met him over there last winter and find his views somewhat difficult to absorb, but he represents quite a large group in the States, including McCulloch and Rosenblueth. These people are thinking on very much the same lines as Kenneth Craik did, but with much less sparkle and humour."  Walter, W. G. 1947 Letter from Grey Walter to Professor Adrian, 12 June 1947. BNI Papers, Science Museum.    

Unfortunately you are left with that as a lasting impression, and nothing could be further from the truth. They ended up being great friends, and I’ll publish some of Grey’s comments about him here:

PROGRESS IN NEUROCYBERNETICS 1972 As a friend of the late and deeply lamented Professor Norbert Wiener I feel some personal reminiscences may be helpful to those who knew his work but had not the advantage of his friendship. He and I were born in the same State (Missouri, the "Show Me" State) but 16 years apart. His two volumes of Autobiography are worth reading carefully still, for he was a truely great man. …..

SOME REMINISCENCES When I first met Norbert Wiener in 1946 in Boston we immediately found a field of common interest frequency analysis. His concern was, of course, on the highest academic plane whereas mine was on the level of empirical application to the study of electric brain activity. It was only a little later that he published his famous work "Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine", followed by the extension of his ideas in "The Human Use of Human beings" with the sub-title "Cybernetics and Society". It is a privilege to participate in this meeting dedicated to the honour of that man. He was not only one of the great mathematicians but also a dedicated Humanist in the best sense. He re-vitalised the term Cybernetics, used first in 1834 by Ampere to embrace the Means of Government, and those two words are cognate, deriving from the Greek for "Steersmanship". So guidance is the key-word, and one principle is central; that the laws of guidance are similar – or even identical – in systems that seem as different as mice, men, machines and human communities. ………. Returning to my experiences with Norbert Wiener, one of his characteristics that embarrassed me when I experienced it first was his habit of sleeping at lectures – sometimes even when he was on the platform. I thought it was a sort of affectation, since he seemed to be attending to the proceedings all the time. I got to know him pretty well and when he was staying with me in Bristol I had the privilege of recording his brain electrical activity—EEG. Needless to say, this was perfectly normal—but he did go to sleep quite objectively during the recording. His EEG became that of a person deeply asleep. I tested his alertness and found that if I murmured "Norbert" or asked "What is the differential Coefficient of 3×2[3xsquared]?" he would awaken instantly and give a perfectly reasonable answer. So he was "asleep" but attentive at the same time and this paradox may have been one of the factors accounting for his unique mental energy and versatility – that he was able to rest his brain tranquilly while retaining his selective sensitivity to significant events. Another bond between Norbert Wiener and myself is that we were both born in the same State Missouri. He saw the light in Columbia, where his father was Professor of Modern Languages, while I breathed first in Kansas City where my father was on the "Star". The pet-name of Missouri is The "Show me" State, and Wiener and I certainly shared an insatiable curiosity about a wide diversity of events and appearances. In a subtle way, and without realising it of course, I may have benefited from Wiener’s father, who "left his mark" on the Kansas City School system. It is really worth re-reading the two volumes of his Autobiography (the second is "I am a Mathematician", 1956) and as well as his scholarly and personal works he wrote a Novel: "The Tempter" (1959). Also, Norbert was a world-traveller and linguist; I do sincerely consider him one of the greatest[in italics] men I have ever met. Years ago, when he was coming to stay with me in Bristol, I had an Italian Cook who was a "White Witch" (Strega bianca) that is told fortunes with Tarot Cards and worked spells for good. She had never heard of Norbert and happened to see him getting out of the taxi in the drive. Immediately she said to’ me in Italian, "That man has much to do with the future". He was a bit of a play-actor too – after a seminar or lecture he would ask me "How did I do Grey? Did I hold the audience?" Well, he did have much to do with the future and he did hold the audiences."  

In Survey of Cybernetics (1969):

Neurocybernetics (Communication and Control in the Living Brain) W. Grey Walter, M.A., Sc.D. (Cantab.) Director, Burden Neurological Institute, Bristol (U.K.) INTRODUCTION My first meeting with Norbert Wiener was at the M.I.T. in 1946, when a frequency analyser of my design was being installed for Dr. Robert Schwab, of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. This instrument was the commercial embodiment of a machine I had made during the war to quantify the spectrum of the complex intrinsic brain rhythms. By the standards of those days it was very elaborate and expensive, and the problems it was intended to clarify were poorly defined and quite intractable by visual analysis of the conventional records. The interest of this particular meeting was that I had, empirically and intuitively, hit on an electromechanical method of frequency analysis which generated a rough approximation to a Fourier Transform; and the parameters and characteristics coincided almost exactly with those recommended by Wiener on purely theoretical grounds. I was quite put out to hear Wiener holding forth about the theory and principles of frequency analysis applied to brain waves as if this were a novel and difficult concept, when my machine was ticking away almost next door, reeling off brain wave spectra automatically, every ten seconds, hour after hour. Wiener was more than a little affronted, too, because he had not been told what we were doing and when I gave my account of the empirical features, describing the design of the filters, the choice of a ten second epoch and the discoveries we had already made, he fell asleep at once his habitual defence against competition. It was some time before we appreciated one another, but in later years we spent many happy and exciting days in one another’s homes and at international meetings. I took several records of his own brain rhythms which proved, amongst other things, that his defensive naps were real deep sleep; he could drop off in a few seconds, but would awaken instantly if one spoke his name or mentioned any topic in which he was really interested. For many years, Wiener’s thinking and my experimentation kept converging and overlapping, almost without any direct collusion or collaboration. His notion of scansion by the alpha rhythms matured at almost exactly the same time as we had observed some sort of space time transformation in analyses of real brain rhythms. Oddly enough, the artificial animals that I built at this time incorporated an elementary scanning receptor, white his model did not. My `tortoises’ are not confused by the dilemma of Buridan’s donkey, while his `moth’ would trundle confidently midway between two targets, missing both. Wiener refers to some of the differences between the two models in both The Human Use of Human Beings’ and in the second volume of his autobiography,2 but without apparently appreciating the significance of space time transforms as a possible resolution of the `determinism free will’ dilemma. This oversight seems all the more remarkable because of his intense interest in the reduction of philosophic verbalisms to operational hypotheses. Similar considerations apply to paradoxes such as those of Cantor and Russell which, as Wiener realised, can be resolved by attaching a time parameter to each statement. The automatic establishment of primacy confers special properties on a system which cannot be ignored in studies of the brain and organic behaviour; and the importance of temporal order in machine programming or process control cannot be exaggerated. Wiener’s attitude to biological, social and political questions was radical and mechanistic, although not merely materialistic, yet in some of his theoretical propositions and conjectures he seemed deaf to practical observations and necessities."

With regards to their models, it is interesting to note that Grey Walter built his ‘tortoises’ before Norbert Wiener’s ‘moth’.

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