The wondrous Walter Pitts and his friends and collaborators

Amanda Gefter, writing in Nautilus, profiles Walter Pitts:

Thus formed the beginnings of the group who would become known as the cyberneticians, with Wiener, Pitts, McCulloch, Lettvin, and von Neumann its core. And among this rarified group, the formerly homeless runaway stood out. “None of us would think of publishing a paper without his corrections and approval,” McCulloch wrote. “[Pitts] was in no uncertain terms the genius of our group,” said Lettvin. “He was absolutely incomparable in the scholarship of chemistry, physics, of everything you could talk about history, botany, etc. When you asked him a question, you would get back a whole textbook … To him, the world was connected in a very complex and wonderful fashion.”

The Lettvin mentioned there is Jerry Lettvin, who many years later became part of the Improbable Research gang (you may have seen him performing in several Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies). Jerry died in 2011. He was a colorful and influential character.

Jerry and Walter were, among many other things, jokers. Here’s the story of how young Jerry and Walter published their first scientific paper — a hoax that preceded by several decades the celebrated Sokal hoax:

“Psychoses” – A magnificent hoax

BONUS: You may notice a similarity between the early life/career of Walter Pitts and the less colorful early life/career of the title character in the fictional movie “Good Will Hunting.”

UPDATE NOVEMBER 2015: Amanda Gefter was awarded a Kavli Science Award for the article.