Jeffrey Nicoll

From JerryLettvin

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First Entry

I worked with your father during the Concourse Program in the 1970’s. He often visited me in my part of Building 20 where I kept a cabinet drawer of popcorn and a filthy popcorn popper. Like most people who ever met him, he was a great influence on me, defining what one did with the mind no matter what one did for a living. He was one of the great figures of the last century. I only recently learned of his passing from another old MIT acquaintance and it took a while to be directed to you. I will try to get some thoughts together for the wiki. Off the top of my head, one episode that may be under reported was during an anti-war protest that got a little out of hand. Another student, Ned Lagin, who occasionally played piano for the Grateful Dead, was injured. I remember Jerry scooping him up off the ground and carrying him rapidly away to safety and medical care. And of course, he often skipped backwards down the halls of Building 20, with great joy.

Second Entry

I spent 13 years at MIT (undergrad, graduate student and postdoc) and it is hard to remember a year without Jerry. Even after I left, I frequently returned to campus and would try to drop in and see what was up (one time running into Benoit Mandelbrot sitting below Walt Pitts copy of the Oxford English Dictionary).

I first encountered him through an East Campus dorm-mate, Chuck Sigwart. Chuck had very thoroughly blown himself up in a rocket fuel incident, losing an arm, an eye, the other thumb, and 3 more finger tips. The retina in the remaining eye was a curtain of lace, with essentially no foveal vision remaining. Becoming interested in neurophysiology due to his special circumstance, and having to essentially tape and transcribe every lecture after he returned to MIT, Chuck produced a famous transcription of Jerry’s “Biological Bases of Perception and Knowledge” (21.705); I still have a copy. It is easy to hear Jerry’s voice in the notes. Jerry helped Chuck do simple perception experiments on himself that enabled him to map the damage to his retina better than the technology of the day (early 60’s).

I also took 21.705 which may have been my first formal introduction to Jerry (I still have the copy of Leibntiz’s Monadology, and Helmhotlz’s Physiological Optics, bought as a result of the course or other conversations). It is amazing how well this material holds up after 45 years: that was because Jerry insisted on a sound experimental, philosophical and epistemological basis, which many of the competing perspectives lacked, and still lack.

I was fortunate to be at a number of seminal events: the debate with Timothy Leary in Kresge Auditorium (I was not so shocked at the famous expletive but remember Jerry addressing Leary as “sitting shiva, there on the stage,”),as well as the 4-way debate in 6-120 between Hubert Dreyfus, Marvin Minsky, and Seymour Papert, and Jerry,. I did not attend, but have tapes of the reprise of the Minsky-Dreyfus debate from 1982, at which Jerry acted as “immoderator.” The tapes wonderfully preserve his voice; one can see his posture, and estimate the position of the cigarette. Jerry refers in that debate to a project that Paul Pangaro and I had done for him in the mid 70’s. We made a simulation of a neural net ( way before they became popular) to see how nervous impulses would be transmitted down a network of axons with decreasing diameters to see how the temporal pattern on the originating network would be transformed into a spatial-temporal pattern in the tree.

Returning to the 60’s, I ended up hanging out in Building 20 with the Education Research Center folk (Judah Schwartz, Harry Schey,…) right above Jerry’s book-lined office. We were doing curriculum development, which attracts students (we ran a special freshman program with a lot of labs and self- taught stuff (it was the 60’s)) and students always attracted Jerry so there was often traffic up and down the stairs, Jerry acting as an informal mentor and catalyst to all of us. I kept a filthy popcorn popper in my space and Jerry would scent it and come up to talk and share the burden of disposing of the food. I remember his vast hand dipping in and removing what seems like 20% of the contents in one handful.

There are so many images:

Jerry at a party in my apartment having young women sit on his lap and be expelled into the air with a flexing of his stomach.

Jerry taking a sandwich apart to avoid the actual bread.

At an anti-war protest, Jerry scooping up a student (another East Campus guy) who had been injured and running with him to the student clinic.

The sign on the lab door, “Experimental Epistemology.”

Jerry explaining that the fact that no-one ever called Sirius the eye of the gorgon was proof that

it was.

And one day, learning from Jerry how to skip backwards. Of course, the somewhat elastic flooring of Building 20 made this almost like skipping on a trampoline.

Later on, I was part of a somewhat less radical program called Concourse (70’s), teaching the physics bits; Jerry was again an overall uncle to the whole program. His influence might be measured by the fact that I taught Shakespeare’s Richard III along with Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time,” to discuss the nature of evidence (in addition to 8.01), the math guy taught “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” along with 18.01 (which required me to add Plato’s Phaedo and the Symposium in response). The humanities instructor added epidemiology and the history of the sweating sickness, all in imitation of Jerry’s style.

As all of us can testify, Jerry made being narrow in perspective a criminal offense. You needed to read philosophy, theology, and history, to make sense of scientific questions of interest today as well as to be of interest yourself. And he would play with us, inventing arguments that were only coherent if you had read something else. For example, a typical statement would be that “Bell Labs developed the Perceptron based on a misunderstanding of Locke,” leaving you to struggle to puzzle it all out. I did catch him once and was able to say that his argument was a parody of one of St. Augustine’s from the City of God (maybe Augustine’s theory of time). But I was only reading City of God to keep up with Jerry. He made sure that students were not just stimulated by him, but would make sure that they were exposed to Edwin Land, Norman Geschwind, Marvin Minsky and Noam Chomsky.

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