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Von Neumann and Nobert Weiner

Norbert Weiner’s daughter, Peggy Kennedy, has kindly corrected some of the details in these amusing but dubiously accurate stories. She comments:

I shall try to set the record straight. but have little hope of succeeding. It is unlikely that anyone would give up a good story merely because it is at odds with the facts. However…..

Von Neumann and Nobert Weiner were both the subject of many dotty professor stories. Von Neumann supposedly had the habit of simply writing answers to homework assignments on the board (the method of solution being, of course, obvious) when he was asked how to solve problems. One time one of his students tried to get more helpful information by asking if there was another way to solve the problem. Von Neumann looked blank for a moment, thought, and then answered, “Yes.”.

There are similar stories about Dad, probably of equal unvalidity. I think these are merely exaggerations of what happens when an expert forgets what it was like before he was an expert. After all, if I were to teach someone to sew, I would not bother to say that first you insert the thread through the eye of the needle. I do agree that he was not a good teacher. I attribute my lack of accomplishment in math courses to having geometry explained to me in terms of trigonometry, and calculus in terms of differential equations. I eventually decided, in the face of very high scores on math aptitude tests, that the whole field was beyond my comprehension. I did just fine in algebra and geometry, with which my father did not feel it necessary to help me.

Weiner was in fact very absent minded. The following story is told about him: When they moved from Cambridge to Newton his wife, knowing that he would be absolutely useless on the move, packed him off to MIT while she directed the move. Since she was certain that he would forget that they had moved and where they had moved to, she wrote down the new address on a piece of paper, and gave it to him. Naturally, in the course of the day, an insight occurred to him. He reached in his pocket, found a piece of paper on which he furiously scribbled some notes, thought it over, decided there was a fallacy in his idea, and threw the piece of paper away. At the end of the day he went home (to the old address in Cambridge, of course). When he got there he realized that they had moved, that he had no idea where they had moved to, and that the piece of paper with the address was long gone. Fortunately inspiration struck. There was a young girl on the street and he conceived the idea of asking her where he had moved to, saying, “Excuse me, perhaps you know me. I’m Norbert Weiner and we’ve just moved. Would you know where we’ve moved to?” To which the young girl replied, “Yes daddy, mommy thought you would forget.”

The capper to the story is that I asked his daughter (the girl in the story) about the truth of the story, many years later. She said that it wasn’t quite true — that he never forgot who his children were! The rest of it, however, was pretty close to what actually happened…

Time for more corrections. For a starter, we moved from one house in Belmont to another in the same town. It is entirely possible that Dad automatically went to the old house. It is also possible that my sister, Barbara, was sent to remind him. It wasn’t me. My remark about not forgetting who his children were was directed as a mild put-down to a brash and naive young fan. He had no idea who I was and plainly thought he would impress me with the tale. As I remember, he spoke no further word for the rest of the evening, at least not to me.
BTW, “absent-minded” really means that one’s mind is absorbed in questions of more vital importance, such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

This page was last updated September 23, 1997.