Anecdotes

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Anecdotes about Jerry

This area is a growing collection of anecdotes whether true or only partially true. Anyone contributing stories will be given their own heading.

David W Lettvin's Anecdotes

David is Jerry's oldest son and claims primogeniture ... or at least the right to be first.

One thing you had to say about our lives in the Lettvin house/apartment, life was never dull. One day the Moscow String Quartet would appear at the door expecting to be fed and greeting my father with a kiss on each cheek and my mother with a full lip smooch. People like Isaac Asimov, Tom Lehrer, Carl Sagan, Harold Edgerton, Al Capp, The Chambers Brothers, wandered in and out of our lives.

Part of it, of course, was that we lived just outside Harvard Square for a good portion of my youth, but another part was that ours was a house where thinking, discussion, and analysis were valued highly. No one was ostracized for getting passionate about a new theory, or some fact that they'd unearthed. Our parties had the deepest, most complex, cocktail chatter ever.

Being there, however, did not necessarily mean that one got to participate. I remember that, in my early teens, I was sitting in a garden in Italy as my father conversed with J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane was frail and quite ill, but was enjoying the sun and the conversation.

Perhaps not realizing that I was now reading more advanced stuff, including some of Haldane's essays (I was quite proud of having read and understood "Daedalus, or Science and the Future"), Jerry decided that the way to bring me into the conversation was to cite my enjoyment of Haldane's admittedly delightful children's book, "My Friend Mr. Leakey", whereupon the old gentleman asked me if I knew how to tell that someone was a jinn like Abdu'l Makkar in the book. He motioned me to lean close and whispered. "They have tufts of hair in their ears."

He then called his Indian companion over and, in a whisper, asked him for some more tea, forcing the man to bend his turbaned head to hear. Haldane grinned and with a slight tip of his head directed my attention to the man's ears and the tufts of hair within.

I nodded and widened my eyes in amazement, and having been treated to my modicum of attention, sat back and let the conversation go on without me.

Jonathan Lettvin's Anecdotes

Chess Master

Jerry once took a chess master to a party. Another guest boasted that he could beat anyone at chess. Jerry's guest accepted in the manner of "slowly I turn. Step by step." He told the boaster, "not only will you win, you will win with these three pieces in this position, and there is nothing you can do about it." That is precisely what occured.

The Raven

As a child, I used to sit on Jerry's shoulders as he recited Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven". I dutifully piped in with "Nevermore" where it was called for.

A Hunter's Son

Jerry was always searching for experimental observations that undermined immature theories of neural systems. Rather than "play" with me, he expected me to sit quietly for hours as he worked. I sat in his labs during these searches, making microelectrodes, preparing animals, setting up equipment. Mostly, though, I sat in the darkened Faraday cage listening to a loudspeaker crackle with amplified neuron activity and taking polaroids of storage oscilloscope traces. Although well-meaning people advised me that the long hours of sitting were tantamount to neglect, I find myself feeling more privileged to watch the hunter in action, and watching his skills has endowed me with seemingly uncommon insights. So, the moral of the tale is, consider if any good has come of your experiences, even those that good people tell you are inappropriate.

Nobel-laureates-to-be up the wazoo

Our house always seemed to be visited by smallish parties of odd people. Many went on to get Nobel prizes. These people would descend unannounced on our apartment and the conversations would last into morning hours. Each would tell stories and, in one case, imitate various animals like chimpanzees. Biologists, Mathematicians, Physicists, Electrical Engineers, Philosophers, and more. In addition to the laureates, we were visited by nuns in miniskirts, musicians, magicians, vaudeville ecdysiasts, and more.

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