Jerome Lettvin
Jerry Lettvin worked at MIT in times when teaching and research were more flexible. He taught an afternoon class in the history of science that went on for hours because he paid no attention to the time. It was so popular that students would pack a lunch, bring their girl friends, and spend the afternoon listening to him.

Jerry won acclaim for being the first person to measure the electric impulse from fine neurons. His work was published in a paper titled "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain" that has since become one of the most famous publications in the field.

I first met him in the 1970's when a friend and I walked into Jerry's office, unfamiliar and unannounced, and told him that we had heard that he could tell us something useful about science. The second time I saw him was in 2007, 25 years later when I spoke to him and his wife Maggie for this interview at their home outside of Boston.

Afterward: Jerry Lettvin died on Saturday April 23rd, 2011.

Interview Excerpts
Read the full interview :
"I started out as a poet and became a physician, then became an electrical engineer, then a neurobiologist. It was never with any sense of searching for what people wanted to know. It was just to understand the thing that I was looking at in a way that made sense. That is a far more difficult job than writing equations…"

"The interesting things were the problems: were there other ways in which you could express the problem such that analogies and concordances would pop up? It’s very much like listening to music and trying to decide what is meant doing it this way rather than that way. That is essentially the way that I’ve worked all my life. I haven’t been after prizes, just curiosity, that’s all…"

"You pass out after the first two breaths… and when you wake up it is an epiphany. Things stand out with such startling clarity that you cannot quite understand how it was that such a thing as this… was… not observed… For the next 12 hours Walter (Pitts) and I were walking in a world in which every single thing became completely clear. The clarity was the likes of which you don’t experience ordinarily… It’s at this point that curiosity overwhelms you…

"You see, you’re asking me how I go about things, I go about things in a way that has nothing to do with what universities teach. It’s very different from what universities tell you to do, what teachers tell you to do. You make it up as you go along, and god knows how it comes out; you don’t know…

"I’m a garbage picker-upper as a mode of science: I focus on the garbage truck. I look at the parts that others choose not to pay attention to. It’s interesting the number of things that are not paid attention to... absolutely astounding…"


Jerome Lettvin, at Wikipedia
Jerome Lettvin, Home Page and Memorial Page
Sorcery for Scientists, my presentation at Jerry's memorial.

Copyright © 2010, Lincoln Stoller. All rights reserved.