Norbert and me
A memoir of MIT from a member of the Class of ’58
My home in South Dayton (now Kettering), Ohio, seemed a long way away from the MIT campus in the fall of 1954. Living in the East Campus quadrangle, I was restless and homesick, and having trouble sleeping nights. This situation led me to take a part-time student job as switchboard operator for East Campus on the late night or graveyard shift, as it was called. If I were going to be up all night anyway, I might as well get paid.
From time to time, walking in the hallowed halls of MIT, I had noticed a short, rotund middle-aged man with thick glasses, reading a book while walking. He would sometimes have one hand extended with his index finger touching the wall, so that he would know where to turn without interrupting his reading. At first I found this occasional spectacle (pun intended) a bit bizarre, but no stranger than many other situations at MIT. This was the era in which students had disassembled an MG sports car and carried the pieces up to the roof of the quadrangle, where they were faultlessly reassembled as a prank on the owner. This was the era of the “mirror wars” when each side of the quad would detach dresser mirrors and aim them to catch the sun to maximum effect, heating up the opposite side of the quad to intolerable temperatures; the first side to run out screaming lost that game.
One night, as I plugged wires into my East Campus switchboard infrequently to connect calls from our students’ girlfriends, occasional parents, and fellow students, the short bearded man showed up in the dorm lobby and asked my name, which I provided. He replied that he was Professor Norbert Wiener and taught math at MIT while he was further developing his ideas on cybernetics. I had no idea what cybernetics meant, and told him so, and he replied that cybernetics involved the pairing of man and machine, and would be the wave of the future in science. I must confess to being quite impressed.
After that initial meeting, Norbert Wiener came over to my switchboard frequently if irregularly. Sometimes, when I was busy with calls, I would have to ignore him, but since he always had a book with him, that was not a problem. Other times, we would talk for hours about everything under the sun — or under the moon and stars, to be more accurate. The one thing which Norbert would not talk about was himself and his family. Other than that area, nothing was off limits, and I never felt treated as a lowly undergrad. Rather, we were colleagues exploring the implications of cybernetics and many other areas for the future of humanity. All of this was a heady experience for me, and I learned considerably more than what I was learning in some science and engineering classes.
On one occasion, I asked Norbert about his habit of reading while walking. He replied that he had heard of a story being circulated on campus about his being asked by a colleague if he had yet had lunch that day. Norbert asked the colleague which way he was heading, and the colleague replied that he was heading east. Norbert was supposed to have replied, “If I am heading east, then I have eaten lunch.” I asked him if the story was true, and he responded that, either way, he liked the story. That was all he would say.
As my second year at MIT began, I was facing a dilemma regarding the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) requirement for all undergraduates at MIT. Being a land-grant university, which meant that once in the dim past it had taken federal funds, MIT required two years of ROTC of all students. A so-called loyalty oath was also required, which I had reluctantly signed as a freshman and which now had to be renewed. I had to state that I had never been a member of a long list of organizations, a list nobody bothered (nor had the time) to read through thoroughly. It further stated that I would not become a member of any organizations added to the list in the future, as they might be so-called communist front groups and therefore anathema to us loyal Americans.
I did not see how I could sign such an oath in good conscience, and further how I could know in advance that I would never join an unnamed organization which might be added. The more I thought about this problem, the more it bothered me, as if I refused to sign the oath, I was likely to be expelled from MIT as well as branded as disloyal — in those days, and even today, the kiss of death to my career plans. I stalled signing the oath and consulted with Norbert on his next late-night visit to the East Campus switchboard.
Norbert heard me out, unusual in itself as he much preferred talking to listening, and then said, “Eugene, had my father not left Europe long before the rise of Hitler, I would not be here today. Even so, being of Russian extraction, I have heard of the pogroms and other abuses of our people, once by the Czar, and now by the Communists. All of that starts with one wrongful action, then a few people who look the other way, then more and more who refuse to see the truth or take action. Do not be one of those people. Stand on your conscience. We cannot let America turn into a fascist nation.”
So, I refused to sign the loyalty oath, first to Major Robbins, our ROTC commander, and then to the Dean of Students. I was threatened with expulsion and being reported to the FBI and “elsewhere” but I stood my ground. Meanwhile, I called my parents and their good friend Asher Bogin, a lawyer out in Dayton, Ohio, with civil rights credentials. Asher Bogin in turn contacted authorities at MIT, a contact to which I was not a party, to let them know that they had one hell of a fight on their hands over the loyalty oath, which he considered totally unconstitutional. Major Robbins then decided that my prior oath, the year before, could serve for the next year under these “special circumstances.” While I tried to retract that prior oath, I was told that there was no procedure for doing so.
Thus, I was able to remain at MIT. Had it not been for Norbert Wiener, though, I would never have challenged authority in this manner. But my real tribute to this man, whose expertise in mathematics and science were matched by his deep concern for humanity, is that I have been challenging authority ever since. Rest in peace, Norbert.
Eugene Elander is a member of the Class of 1958.