Saturday, April 30, 2011

From Alex Andrew

I learned a lot from Jerry during a spell in MIT in the mid nineteen-fifties, both in the laboratory and in generally knocking around with him and others, especially Brad Howland. I got the sad news of Jerry’s death in a phone call from Brad.

During part of the time at MIT I lived in the Lettvin household and knew David, Ruth and Jonathan as youngsters. I would have liked to tell a story or two to illustrate that crazy but productive time but many incidents come to mind and I haven’t been able to choose. I’ll put some of them into an obituary notice for the journal Kybernetes. In the meantime I send condolences to all, especially Maggie.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Improbable Research

Marc Abrahams posted a nice article about Jerry on the Improbable Research blog.

Jerry the Actor

Of course he was always on, but at one point was a television actor.

Taking on a a role that was not far from his own personality, he played a crazily seductive scientist and demonstrator who was tempting people to sniff ether.

The show was an early Nova episode called "Strange Sleep" about anaesthesia. It aired for the first time on PBS on April 4, 1974, and in 1975 won the Red Ribbon at the American Film Festival.

Unfortunately, there are no links to view the episode over the Web, but I will keep looking and post a link here if I find one or if I find a place to buy it from.

The Stazione

Jerry spent several years at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy.
The ground floor of the building, to the left of the central door was a public aquarium, the rest of the building consisted of labs, offices, libraries, and other support facilities for marine biology research. Some of the other people in residence were: J.Z. Young, Andrew Packard, Ilona Richter, Martin Wells, Ilona and Beate Schiff, etc.

One of Jerry's favorites among the maintenance staff was the electrician who tested the 220v light sockets by licking his fingers and inserting them.

Jerry and Warren

Jerry and Warren McCulloch experimenting with carbonization.

Jerry's Papers

Jerry was a prolific writer, writing many drafts of each article, paper, or poem.

Last year, we sent nearly 100 bankers boxes of manuscript, typescript, notes, etc. to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia where his documents share a vault with those of his colleague Warren McCulloch as well as fellow radicals Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The APS archivists are engaged in the huge task of cataloging the material after which it will be listed among their acquisitions.

The Telephone

Maggie has asked me to let people know that, rather than getting condolences and sympathy, she would prefer anecdotes, stories of Jerry's adventures and mishaps, his wit and warmth. Please consider this blog as a venue to share such stories with her and the rest of Jerry's genetic and academic families and friends.


Lock picker

Jerry had one of the most massive key-rings I have ever seen. My memory may be faulty, but I remember it as being a full six inches in diameter with little room left for additional keys, a real "janitor's ring." He had keys to dozens of offices, labs, classrooms, basements, roofs, athletic facilities, etc. It was too big for his pocket, so he usually wore it on an industrial strength metal key retriever that was clipped to the leather belt at his waist, where it jangled and scraped against walls and doors. At times I wondered how he kept his pants from falling down since the net weight must have been a couple of pounds.

But, although he carried this huge metal rosary at his waist, he seldom used any of them since his favorite mode of moving about the MIT campus was through the use of a "loid" He always had a couple of old credit cards, a length of plastic ruler, or a piece of twisted coat-hanger in his pocket, and there were few places that could deny his entry. He prided himself on being able to use the maze of tunnels, corridors and maintenance passages to cross the entire campus without ever going outside. He tried to teach me the tricks, but I was an indifferent student of the art, either being too clumsy or having too big a self-righteous stick up my butt.

Bearing in mind his usual attitude of never letting truth stand in the way of a good story, Jerry once claimed to have taught Amar Bose the tricks of gaining after-hours entry at the MIT swimming pool so that he could experiment with its acoustics.


There are indications that a memorial gathering is potential. Details when I hear them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The "bug" in Bradford

From the left: Ruthie, Jonathan, Jerry, Joan holding one David, Teddy holding Rory, the other David. Maggie might be the one behind the camera. Bradford, NH.
(Thanks to Rory Lettvin for the photo.)

Young guns

David (me), Teddy, Jerry, Rory and Jonathan in Bradford NH in the 60s.
(Thanks to Rory Lettvin for the photo.)

Nothing good ...

... can come from mixing intellectuals and guns. Jerry waits gleefully for his turn as brother Teddy seems ready to solo on a new instrument in preparation for the 1812 Overture. The photo was taken at Teddy's house in Bradford NH.
(Thanks to Rory Lettvin for the photo.)

The Aesthete

When I sit, I sitting, tend
to sit a seat with sense so fine
that I can feel my sit-soul blend
insensibly with seat's design.

Seeking no support the while
it assesses stools for style
leaving what the structure means
for blind behinds of Philistines.

--Christian Morgenstern from Die Galgenlieder, Translated by Jerry Lettvin

Note Jerry's use of alliteration which lets him fill the poem with asses just as he fills the chair with his own. Even the title is a lisping pun. 

This is an excellent example of his ability to retain Morgenstern's humor. I have read several other translations none of which have the same sense of wicked play. I wish that he had done more than the few that were published in The Fat Abbot.

Jerry and Maggie

Here they come! 

There they go!

A choice of venue

Jonathan has a collection of photos on his wiki. (See the comments to the first post.) I will be publishing photos one at a time here with further comments and an attempt at identification.

Jerry as Archimedes

In an old clawfoot bathtub with a reinforced plywood board across it. Occasionally the books on his bathtub desk would be replaced by a large, gray, Underwood manual typewriter.


A partial list of Jerry's papers and publications may be found here:

In addition to Jonathan's wiki page of the Morgenstern translations, there is another page at:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The background image

The background image of this site is the Northern Leopard Frog (Rana Pipiens) which was the animal which was the basis of most of Jerry's research. The photo is from a University of Washington website.

More Data More Noise

That was the title of a book assembled for one of my father's many birthdays. It contains many remembrances and stories which I may repost here as I get permissions.


Currently, no ceremony is planned. Should that change, I will post it here.

Jerry with Walter Pitts and unnamed collaborator

See more of this collaborator in the background of this blog.

Thank God it's Faraday!

Sorry for my tendency to pun. It is my most durable inheritance from Jerry, who in this picture is sitting in a "Faraday cage," a metal mesh enclosure that protected his equipment and experiments from external electrical and electronic "noise."

Jerry at rest


At about 12:30 today, April 23 2011, Professor Jerome Y. Lettvin died peacefully listening to his own translations of Christian Morgenstern..

This blog will serve as a tribute page for those who wish to communicate in this way. Please feel free to contribute any stories or memories.

Photographs and stories should be sent via email for insertion.

More details will follow.