The tragic life of Walter Pitts

Everyone in computational neuroscience knows about the McCulloch-Pitts neuron model, which forms the foundation for neural network theory. However, I never knew anything about Warren McCulloch or Walter Pitts until I read this very interesting article in Nautilus. I had no idea that Pitts was a completely self-taught genius that impressed the likes of Bertrand Russell, Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann but was also a self-destructive alcoholic. One thing the article nicely conveys was the camaraderie and joie de vivre that intellectuals experienced in the past. Somehow this spirit seems missing now.


5 thoughts on “The tragic life of Walter Pitts

  1. i forwarded this to a group i joined on line which meets in a library though the first meeting is next month (‘MAD scientists’ on facebook)..

    One person there is into cognitive neuroscience. (I was another post today saying we can’t speculate about how the brain computes until we know the biochemistry. Maybe the GOP can get this through congress).

    I give a 50% chance that will also be the last time i attend.

    I think there was always some non-comaderie in the past—many of the Bull Math Biophys group at UC i gather was exiled to U Buffalo and elsewhere because people didnt like their work; the prof of one class i took basically sat in the front row when i had to give a presentation in which i cited some of Prigogine’s ideas on the 2nd law—he thought Prigogine was bs so he immmediately put his head on a chair and went to asleep—sortuh disresctful i thought. (I also did stumble through my derivation of the H-theorem—mechanics is definately not my forte, so i should have been in philosophy.)

    My QM physics prof, when i had a discussion with him about books i had seen in the library (on quantum biology, and bell’s theorem, many world’s theory, etc) told me thats all bs — noone thinks about that stuff, all we do is calculate the spectrum of hydrogen to the nth decimal place. (Dirac i think also thought ‘epr’ and such weren’t interesting. ) Feynman’s ‘lectures’ books also were considered not to be serious;. A few top rate math physicists like I think V I Arnold and some others wrote articles about current math education saying they had been inspired by semi-technical books written by other mathematicians (eg ‘Number’ by Tobias Danziger maybe) and found current educational style was very boring and the students did learn skills but in their view didnt know much about nor have an interest in math. (see ‘a mathematician’s lament’ in Bull Am Soc with intro by Keith devlin).

    I used to sleep in libraries and outside because i didnt get along with roomates (who werent scientists) ; and also flourescent lights and computers made me sick (one reason i was interested in quantum biology and even went to a conference on it, where jack cowan spoke on hallucinations (which i see entretrout has pages on his website)—he dissmissed umezawa’s quantum brain dynamics when i mentioned it. I also met people when i went to india (mishra, etc.) to discuss the Frolich theory and climb some mountains, etc.

    When I was supposed to graduate I told them I didnt want the degree; I relented when my parents showed up , we had a talk with the dean, and i decided they had paid so much money for it which involved alot of work, that i shouldnt be ungrateful. (I did feel like i was being branded like a cow). I gave a paper which i was supposed to help publish from a person at SFI for a job application, but quit after 2 weeks and didnt pick it up (on statistical mechanics of antibody-antigen aggregation).

    It says Pitts went to sleep at 4 am. I get up between 1 and 4 am.

    I see I have a little red wine left over so since the sun is rising maybe my workday is over and i can relax at a happy hour.

    I was talking via email with people (one at AU) into ‘entropic inference’ about their econ and physics papers—one’s view was that Verlinde’s entropic gravity was bs unlike his (see ariel caticha on arxiv—interesting collaborators—hall and reginatto, fisher infoo or K-L) , and the other’s view was that his approach to econophysics was different than others’ but wouldn’t explain how; his paper is ok but I’m not sure how this really is going to be applied to economics—maybe in 50 years. (He told me i could come up and talk with him, and i used to be in AU library until 2 am many days, but nowadays i have gotten a bit allergic to universities (and also alot of professors and grad students, many of whom seem to be both shallow and arrogant). (i do see one person at a philosophy group i sometimes go to from NIH who does computational stuff —classifier systems—but he doesnt discuss that at that group. He did say last time he would talk to one person who gave me a hard time once, tho i said it wasnt neccesary. Maybe i’ll drop out of that group too. Its less philosophy oriented than social. (one person there studied law under Cass Sunstein; he even sometimes pays my bills but i got in trouble up there after I attended one of the Ferguson protests, and was a bit of mess (it for bit-coins). .

    (Another econophysics type (Paul Cockshott—uk, actually CS, dabbles in econ (marxist—–‘laws of chaos’ machover) who disputes ‘hypertruing computation’ in some papers, though i am not sure he understands that area) i talked to via email about his paper. He said he didn’t know what i was talking about—which was the fokker planck equation in his paper—-and he said, oh, i haven’t read that part —it was co-authored). Publish or perish.


  2. @ishi How things change. Now, QM measurement and interpretation is all the rage.

    Maybe camaraderie is the wrong word. Perhaps direct intellectual interaction is closer to what I was getting at. Back in the old days, they had the Bloomsbury Group with Keynes and Woolf, the Vienna Circle with Carnap and Godel sitting in, the gang at MIT/Harvard with Shannon and Wiener and so forth. Things seem much more business like now and even when I was a graduate student decades ago.

    Maybe your philosophy group captures some of that old spirit.

    Also, it was the hard-drinking McCulloch that never slept before 4AM.


  3. i just skimmed the article so i got the wrong person. i did remember the mcculough and pitts model; i put it in the same tradition as von neumann’s self-reproducing automota. i tend to see it as somewhat like the first ‘connectionist’ model (geoff hinton, rumelhart at CMU—my dad went there for awhile actually before UC…). For language aquisition there was a huge dispute between the connectionists and the ‘chomskyites’ about ‘poverty of the stimulus’ (i saw chomsky speak 2 times on linguistics, and during Q@A i brought up the connectionist argument, and both times he said basically ‘my grad student has resolved that issue’ and his crew (eg up at U Md.) pretty much viewed me as a heretic. There is of course a whole lot of writing on this issue (sortuh like ‘group selection’ in biology). Bloomsbury group of which i only know a bit about was definately interdisciplinary and eccentric. my philo group does have personalities (from scientists and academics, to retired grandmothers, and some GMU type free market libertarians—who i find to be a bit dogmatic, if not trivial—but maybe i’m ‘not even wrong’ (TM)), some good discussion and ideas, but its only 2 hours with 30 people , and then socializing at a bar. i partly go because i get a 3-6 mile walk through rock creek park before and after, which calms me down. (it reminds me of some progressive churches in dc—most people have to commute, work, deal with families and other things, so they only get a few hours to think about stuff like philosophy. My mom goes to the same unitarian church in hawaii obama went to—their preacher is a gay man from the phillipines—when i went he was talking about sherry turkle of MIT about ‘social media’—he asked everyone to turn off their ipod for 1 hour to get in touch with nature and people. i dont even have an ipod and dont really want one—my mom did buy me a cell phone since i tend to walk too far and can’t get back in the dark so i just say i’ll be late (did that in hawaii many times—some of the most treacherous but beautiful mountains in the world, and i’ve been in parts of alaska, mexico and the himalayas. )

    alot of the QM interpretation/measurement stuff seems to me (not an expert of course) like a he said, she said thing. (eg perimeter institute), i once emailed g t’hooft saying i agreed with his interpretation of ‘sokal’s hoax’ and he was very nice and emailed me back. (people (perhaps ‘cranks’) on are going after him, and he has a whole page on his web site discussing it. he also has his own theory of ’emergent quantum mechanics’; one person who has written on that has also collaborated with Luc Montagnier (AIDS) on ‘dna and water waves’ (on arxiv)—homeopathy, water memory, etc. some of it almost seems like comics. ‘je suis ou peut etre not …’

    i took a MOOC on basic quantum theory from someone at U Md just to see what they do. the measurement problem or any other very theoretical/speculative stuff wasnt mentioned. it was all calculation like the way my courses were—and they also promoted the new exciting things in QM —again, using some sort of series expansions for more detailed calculations (i just vaguely remember stuff like hermite and other polynomials—it all comes out of group theory (G S Mackey’s article in BAMS 1980 to me is the bible; the details are on wikipedia usually). . you do have to have some formalism/rigor, but the question to me is how much before you get ‘rigor mortis’.

    Of course one wouldnt have or know any of this stuff without all the ‘support staff’—custodians, transportation workers, security people,
    people into agriculture and food service…Someone had to build CERN and the internet. (there is a punk/hiphop band called ‘rage against the machine’, who i happen not to like very much). Maybe ISIS could switch careers, and share some work (Keynes, Kropotkin, ‘sandwichman’ (econospeak—-J B Rosser’s group blog on econophysics at JMU) and do a little food service, quantum measurement etc. But I guess others need ISIS to buy the weapons they produce (Lockheed martin always advertizes on NPR/WAMU….) probably using some drug money — i have that issue right here which i dont want. (NPR has been running shows on heroin use in the area and USA — so maybe they need that problem so they can have a news story). peace out (i’m just spewing or procrastinating; you do have good blog which i point others to


  4. I’ll just toss out a couple of thoughts on the Pitts article…
    I’ll submit that Pitts was somewhere on the ASD spectrum. Pitts excelled in bottom up reasoning, which is a thinking style commonly seen in those with higher functioning autism. While, yes, most children with autism do not do well in math, it is more than coincidence that people more involved in the hard sciences have a significant increased risk of having a child on the ASD.
    Other points… Pitts’ seems to have displayed a savant-like ability for memorizing certain topics. A quote from the article will suffice:
    “He is the most omniverous of scientists and scholars. He has become an excellent dye chemist, a good mammalogist, he knows the sedges, mushrooms and the birds of New England. He knows neuroanatomy and neurophysiology from their original sources in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German for he learns any language he needs as soon as he needs it.”
    As long as the topics of conversation involved logical discussions of scientific ideas, Pitts could fit in and thrive. However, the article also hints at how his cognitive style hindered him. He hid in the library. That’s great for learning, but that makes it difficult to learn how to interact with people, as people are inherently illogical. People who prefer bottom-up cognitive processing styles tend to not do well in complex, rapidly evolving social activities. Yes, the author suggested he hid in libraries for self-preservation, but it was also a socially acceptable reason for avoiding other, more personally uncomfortable activities like social interaction. This likely contributed to his difficulty in completing school in a traditional setting.
    It doesn’t appear that he was able to establish more than a very few meaningful relationships. He apparently never married. I would be shocked if he ever dated. Maybe his father was abusive, but it doesn’t look like he had any warm social ties with anyone in his family.
    Finally, he had severe anxiety which likely increased his need to isolate. Anxiety and social isolation are factors on the ASD spectrum. His anxiety was bad enough that he required increasing amounts of alcohol to control it. In my job, I have yet to meet anyone with alcohol problems who doesn’t have concurrent anxiety. Alcohol controls anxiety when it’s consumed, but makes anxiety worse when it wears off.
    I know these are broad stroke generalizations, but this is just a quick take on a sketchy tale of his life. Yet, none of it is surprising to me.


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