Saturday, May 14, 2011

From David Fish

Jerry Lettvin was legendary among the undergrads at MIT. Many of us heard of his powerful intellect, his capacity for scholarly invention and penetrating inquiry even before we knew what he did or his field of research. It was only much later, when I became involved as a graduate student with neurophysiology, that I began to understand when reading his work what he had accomplished.

Before that, however, I had a close encounter of the Lettvin kind in my senior year as an electrical engineering student. At MIT an undergraduate thesis project was required, and Jerry Lettvin sat on the review committee for my group of undergrads presenting early progress reports on our thesis work. I had done a reasonable amount of work and made enough progress to acquit myself acceptably when giving my first progress report. Not surprisingly at the first of any such sessions there were always those who were perhaps a little—or more than a little—behind in their work on their theses. Now I will have to say that the great Prof. Lettvin could hardly get himself bent out of shape just because some puny undergrad had come forward with a puny work product, but I was to learn that day what he might heap upon a bullshitter.

There was among my group of supplicants, a particular type of undergrad commonly seen in my day (then 1971)--the happy hippie slacker who might hide, under a dirty flannel shirt and long tangled locks (mine were not tangled) a stunning mind and piercing wit (one of my roommates comes to mind, who would ace his final exams in 20 minutes after an entire term of smoking weed and not knowing where the lecture hall for the class was—but that’s another story) but there was of course no way to tell by looking. Jerry Lettvin and his kind at the ‘tute probably had seen these and many other things come and go in their years of educating young people in their volatile years.

At one point, came time for one such young classmate of mine, let’s call him “Tom” to give his report. Of course, Tom had no papers, binders, books, folios—not so much as a pencil—with him, yet attempted to engage the committee—and Jerry Lettvin—on the cool ideas he had at least taken the trouble to conceive in the preceding 20 minutes or so. Evidently thinking of himself as some sort of musical savant or conniving to bamboozle these uncultured eggheads with his audacious intellectual range he then bumbled forward with some notion of examining Mozart’s music for some arcane structural patterns. Now this was an electrical engineering thesis group, mind you, but no idea born of any serious examination was ever dismissed out of hand—such was the ethos of MIT. It didn’t take long for Tom to tour the group through his crude idea during which Jerry Lettvin listened impassively. Lord knows what he was thinking, though.

Then he started asking Tom questions. It became immediately apparent that Tom hardly knew the tiniest fraction of what Jerry Lettvin knew … about Mozart, his music, the influence of his parents, the age he lived in, and on and on. With every answering non sequitur that followed from Toms lips, Jerry Lettvin’s speech became more pressured and animated, yet he never used an accusatory word or called Tom out for his disrespect or lack of diligence. Instead, he spun out yarns and more yarns of interesting ideas that Tom could explore for his thesis project.

I have always remembered this witnessing of the wellspring of Jerry Lettvin’s knowledge and his energy for its exploration, and his overpowering Tom, not with abuse or pronouncement, but with the riches of example. It hasn’t abided in perfect constancy, but on the occasions of my work as an educator, I’ve often reminded myself of what I have been given by the likes of Jerry Lettvin.

David Fish
MIT 1972 1977

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