[Humanist] 22.674 Walter Pitts

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Apr 8 10:12:08 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 674.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 08 Apr 2009 09:07:30 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Walter Pitts

Some here will have heard of Walter Pitts (1923-1969), best known as the 
other author of papers for which Warren McCulloch is famous, such as "A 
logical calculus of the ideas imminent in nervous activity" (1943). The 
work of both is important to us because it, influenced by Turing's 
ideas, in turn influenced John von Neumann's design of computer 
architecture and via cybernetics, of which McCulloch was a part, much 
else. A couple of anecdotes will give you some idea of Pitts, as well as 
of his time and place:

> "At the age of twelve [Pitts] was chased into a library by a gang of
> ruffians, and took refuge there in the back stacks. When the library
> closed, he didn’t leave. He had found Russell and Whitehead’s
> Principia Mathematica. He spent the next three days in that library,
> reading the Principia, at the end of which time, he sent a letter to
> Bertrand Russell, pointing out some problems with the first half of
> the first volume; he felt they were serious. . . . A letter returned
> from Russell, inviting him to come as a student to England—a very
> appreciative letter. That decides him; he’s going to be a logician, a
> mathematician." (Lettvin, 1998b, p. 2)
> "Walter Pitts was forced to drop out of high school by his father,
> who wanted him to go to work and earn money. Rather than do this,
> young Pitts ran away from home and ended up in Chicago, penniless.
> The fifteen-year-old boy spent a lot of time in the park, where he
> met and began to have conversations with an older man he knew only
> as Bert. When Bert detected the boy’s interests, he suggested that
> young Pitts read a book that had just been published by a professor
> at the University of Chicago by the name of Rudolf Carnap. Pitts did,
> and showed up at Carnap’s office. “Sir,” he said, “there’s something
> on this page which just isn’t clear.” Carnap was amused, because when
> he said something wasn’t clear, what he meant was that it was
> nonsense. So he opened up his newly published book to where young
> Pitts was pointing, and sure enough, it wasn’t clear; it was
> nonsense. Bert turned out to be Bertrand Russell." (McCorduck, 1979,
> pp. 73–74, n.1)
> Lettvin, J. Y. (1998b). [Interview with J.A. Anderson and E.
> Rosenfeld]. In J. A. Anderson & E. Rosenfeld (Eds.), Talking nets: An
> oral history of neural networks (pp. 1–21). Cambridge MA: MIT Press. 
> McCorduck, P. (1979). Machines who think: A personal inquiry into the
> history and prospects of artificial intelligence. San Francisco: W.
> H. Freeman.

Apparently friends of Pitts kept pushing him to get a PhD, but he had 
the unfortunate habit of criticizing the questions on the qualifying 
exam rather than accepting their assumptions & errors and answering them 
like a good boy.

Keep watch! You never know until, and perhaps not even then.

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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