Dr Steve Joshua Heims died in January 2007 at age 80. He was a renowned historian of science and author of the seminal book “John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death” (MIT Press, 1980) that sparked a debate over the social implications of the work of these two icons, and the distinguished book “The Cybernetics Group,” also published by MIT Press (1991). His other literary work, “Passages From Berlin: Recollections of the Goldschmidt Shule,” compiled essays of surviving fellow students of a Jewish school that existed in Germany during the rise of fascism.
He lived in the Jamaica Plain community, during the ’80s and ’90s.
Refugee from Fascism
He emigrated from Germany in the early 1940s, escaping the fascism and racial hatred in Germany only to encounter racism and repression in America when he married an African-American woman and later encouraged the political activities of his daughter,Leila McDowell-Head who became a member of the Black Panther Party and experienced many of her fellow activists being jailed, killed or forced underground as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program.
Brief NASA career
Steve Heims, who earned his doctorate in physics from Stanford University, was a strong proponent of peace and refused to work on research with military implications.
This stance destroyed his career with NASA.
- Steve's refusal to work on any project with military implications meant that his career as a young physicist at the NASA/Ames Research Laboratory - he was recruited straight from doctoral work at Stanford - was short indeed. He dedicated his life thereafter to matters of peace and to understanding the dynamics and direction of modern science.
Historian of science
In order to support the research and writing involved in an enormous project that occupied two decades - the collective history of the Macy cybernetics group, of whom Wiener and von Neumann were central figures - Heims taught science as a freelancer.
- It is poignant, and worth noting, that his great work of radical scholarship was funded at first by money from CETA (a public service job training agency, the last dying echo of the New Deal, enacted in 1973 and modeled on the WPA), and by the generous amounts of free time built into the schedule at the short-lived syndicalist academy on Dogtown Common in Gloucester, Massachusetts. After CETA was abolished - it was one of the early soft targets of the first Reagan administration - Steve removed to Cambridgeport and later to Jamaica Plain. His quiet, occasional presence at the History of Science faculty seminars in Harvard Yard redeemed those demoralizing events, although the thrust of his gracefully barbed demurrers, delivered with genuine diffidence and usually an expression of faint surprise at what he had just heard, often seemed to elude the inner circle of acolites genuflecting at the altar of official knowledge.