What is Cybernetics?

Cybernetics is a discipline invented and devised by the American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1948).

Norbert Wiener

He worked for many years at MIT mainly on the dynamics of US defense systems. But he also became aware of the striking similarity which occurred between phenomena in control engineering and those in biology and medicine. Many generative diseases particularly of the nervous system seemed to him to be rather similar in nature to the malfunctions of mechanical and electronic systems. In this endeavour Norbet collaborated with a colleague at MIT, the Mexican Dr. Rosenbleuth.

The word cybernetics was thus coined but it is, in fact, the English equivalent of the


classical Greek word for steersman or cox. Oxford, with its great rowing tradition, is very familiar with the concept of cox. The cox, with the exception, of course, of coxless fours and skulls, is the only crew members who can see the way ahead and therefore has ultimate responsibility for the psychological encouragement and the safety of the crew..

One is often asked the practical question: 'What has Cybernetics done for us since 1948?'. This is indeed a vexed question, not though due to any deliberate attempt by any cybernetician to avoid the question. The core of the problem lies in the very definition of Cybernetics: 'Communication and Control in the Animal and Machine'. The present author will feel some sense of achievement if, after this introductory exploration, members of Trinity will have a better understanding of Cybernetics and perhaps some might go away and actively build a new Cybernetics group or join an existing one.

Cybernetics is a pretentious activity, as it would embrace a very wide spectrum of human endeavor from government to jurisprudence, in addition to the applications in science and medicine mentioned above. Also the present author, as an amateur musician believes that cybernetics has something rather profound to say about music. Cybernetics is essentially about process and was forestalled, in spirit, by the Oxford professor of philosophy Alfred North Whitehead.

Alfred North Whitehead

Certainly two important processes take place in the evolution of a new piece of music: composition and performance,not necessarily by the same individual. When the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz wrote his piano suite Iberia, he was dismayed and horrified to discover that he found it too difficult, himself to perform with confidence in public. He seriously considered destroying the manuscript! Mercifully and happily for posterity, his friend the young virtuoso pianist Alicia de la Rocha obliged and has recently recorded a magnificent performance of this graceful and beautiful work.



Isaac Albeniz and his daughter _____________________________ Alicia de la Rocha



In jurisprudence, cybernetics has something to say about the structure of court verdicts in the United Kingdom. In England the verdict of the jury can only be Not Guilty or Guilty, whereas in Scotland, it can be Not Guilty, Guilty or Not Proven.The logic here is different in each case, the first being dichotomous and the second trichotomous in nature.

The talk will cover a wide range of cybernetics applications, time permitting, with demonstrations where appropriate. Adequate time will be alloted for discussion and hopefully lively debate.

If you have the opportunity, please have a look at the website www.science.beewarb.org and select the link cybernetics at that page.

Brian Warburton F.Cyb.S May 2009