nettime's_roving_reporter on Sun, 10 Nov 2002 17:38:29 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> RIP Heinz von Foerster

     [via <>]


   The New York Times Obituaries November 9, 2002

Heinz von Foerster, a Leading Information Theorist, Dies at 90


   Heinz von Foerster, a physicist and a philosopher who was an early
   leader in the field of information theory, died on Oct. 2 at his home
   in Pescadero, Calif. He was 90.

   In the 1940's and 1950's Dr. von Foerster was a participant in a
   series of scientific meetings in New York City that became known as
   the Macy Conferences. Sponsored by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, the
   conferences brought together an influential group of scientists and
   thinkers including Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, Gregory Bateson,
   Margaret Mead and John von Neumann. Dr. von Foerster became the editor
   of the proceedings from the gatherings, which ultimately laid the
   groundwork for much of the future research on a diverse range of
   sciences, from biological physics to computer science.

   A native of Austria, Dr. von Foerster came to the United States in
   1949 with his family and took a position as head of the Electron Tube
   Laboratory in the department of electrical engineering at the
   University of Illinois. There he did research in high-speed
   electronics and electro-optic switching devices.

   In 1958 he founded the Biological Computer Laboratory at the
   university. The laboratory would become an international and
   interdisciplinary center for work in various related fields including
   biophysics, mathematical biology, computational technology, cognition
   and epistemology.

   Dr. von Foerster was born in Vienna in 1911. His family had deep ties
   to Europe's intellectual culture. In an interview in the Stanford
   Humanities Review, he recalled sitting under the family piano as
   adults discussed politics, art and science. Relatives included the
   painter Erwin Lang, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the
   playwright Hugo von Hoffman. His great-grandfather Ludwig Foerster had
   been one of the chief architects of the Ringstrasse in Vienna.

   During his high school years, he came in contact with the group of
   philosophers and scientists known as the Vienna Circle.

   He studied physics at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna and at the
   University of Breslau, where he received a doctorate in 1944. Although
   one of his grandfathers was Jewish, Dr. von Foerster was able to work
   in radar laboratories in Berlin during World War II. He hid his
   ancestry with the help of an employer who chose not to press him for
   documents on his family, Dr. von Foerster's son Thomas said.

   After the war, he did research in biology, writing a paper on the
   possible molecular basis for memory.

   At the Biological Computer laboratory he was involved in pioneering
   work on parallel computing, which breaks problems into multiple parts,
   speeding computation. With support from the Office of Naval Research,
   the laboratory developed the first parallel computers. The first
   machine was known as Numa-Rete, an array of photocells attached to a
   series of computer circuits that was capable of recognizing multiple

   His interest in the computational aspects of biological systems led to
   a more general interest in the study of the nature of knowledge
   itself. He formulated a set of philosophical ideas that would later
   become known as constructivism.

   He had a wide-ranging set of scientific interests that included an
   excursion into demography. In 1960 he was co-author of a paper in the
   journal Science on population growth that proposed a doomsday date
   when the earth's human population would become infinite. The paper
   touched off a lively debate.

   In the 1970's, he refined his thinking on cybernetics, the science of
   information theory, and in 1974 set out to develop a theory,
   explaining the challenge of understanding the impact of an observer on
   the system that is being observed.

   Dr. Von Foerster was a Guggenheim fellow (1956-57 and 1963-64). He was
   named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of
   Science in 1980.

   He is survived by his wife, Mai, whom he married in 1939; a sister,
   Erika de Pasquali, of Sidney, Ill.; two sons, Andreas, of Neskowin,
   Ore., and Thomas, of New York City; and three grandchildren.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: