Jerry Lettvin is gone

Further very sad news (following so soon after the death of Bill Lipscomb):

My good friend and longtime collaborator Jerry Lettvin died this week. Jerry was such a huge—in almost every sense—figure that he and his work defied quick description. But I’ll try. This is from a book I started writing more than a decade ago, about Jerry and about some of his research and scientific interests.


THIS BOOK germinated over several years of Friday afternoon meetings in a decrepit wooden shack atop the roof of an old, tall physics building at MIT, where an occasional hawk, bat, or world-famous scientist dropped by to join the usual gang of science geezers. The central character — and perhaps “character” is too mild a word — in those meetings, and in some ways in this book, is Jerry Lettvin, who looks like a meld of Zero Mostel and Humpty Dumpty, and sounds like he must be a character actor’s character actor from a 1930s gangster film. We meet up on the roof because Jerry loves to smoke, and that shack is the only room at MIT not subject to a smoking ban. To get there you have to take the elevator as high as it goes, then climb a rickety staircase to the roof, and then jimmy the door lock, generally with a credit card. As one of his former students pointed out, Jerry is the only professor you need a credit card to visit.

Jerry is one of the most original and widely accomplished figures in science, and maybe the most entertaining. An MIT professor emeritus of both electrical engineering and biomedical engineering, an MD, a psychiatrist, a protege of mathematician Norbert Wiener, a former free-lance researcher for both the CIA and the Mafia, an original screenwriter on the film “Rebel Without a Cause,” an ace designer of electronic circuits, and a raconteur and practical joker with few peers. Jerry is married to the glamorously brilliant Maggie Lettvin, author of several health books and former PBS television star.

Jerry is probably most famous for two things.  One is of little import: he was the first man to utter an obscenity on public television (in a one-on-one debate with his friend, Timothy Leary).

Of greater consequence was a research paper Jerry and three colleagues published in 1959. Titled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” the paper opened a giant new door in brain research.

Collaborating with a far-flung repertory cast of scientists in many fields, Jerry has been researching and reading and thinking about the brain for some fifty years. He has published extensively and broken new ground on an almost intimidating range of topics.

Jerry has the curse and the gift of speaking in caricature, which can make his stories sound so good they feel apocryphal.  In general, his craziest-sounding science stories are based on facts, with documentation aplenty if you’re willing to go look it up. Some scientists dismiss the stories, though. One told me: “Half of what Jerry Lettvin says is wrong. The trick is to figure out which half.”


Read more about Jerry on Wikipedia, and on the web site built by Jerry’s sons David and Jonathan. And there is new blog, where you can put and find stories about Jerry.

You can think of Jerry as being half Falstaff, half Feynman. See video of Jerry in his lab in 1961, hamming it up for a documentary film called “The Thinking Machine”. Start watching at about the 21-minute mark.

And here’s an episode (circa 1970) of Maggie’s PBS TV show:

FURTHER: MIT’s official announcement.Obituaries in the Boston Globe, MIT, the Society for Neuroscience.

VIDEO OF JERRY’S IMPROMPTU DEBATE WITH HIS FRIEND TIMOTHY LEARY ABOUT LSD [Jerry was recruited for this at the last minute, after the originally scheduled debater bugged out. Jerry enters the video about halfway through.]:

UPDATE: A memorial event for Jerry is scheduled to happen Sunday, September 25, at MIT.

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