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Doubting the things I heard from adults

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How Jerry Lettvin talked me out of neurobiology
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I remember the first night I arrived I had been... I was very interested in neurobiology. As a kid I had actually... My father had helped me tissue culture a frog heart and I remember looking under the microscope and seeing those frog cells beating, I was growing frog cells and they continued to beat, and I got very interested in neurons and neurobiology. And that was sort of the connection between biology and computing.

I thought I wanted to be a neurobiologist and we had these papers, and I'd read this amazing paper called What a Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain, about the processing and the retina. And I came to MIT and my first night at MIT there was a party held by the house master in the dorm that I was staying at. And I remember thinking of this guy as like a 300 pound Jewish Benjamin Franklin. He just knew about everything and he had these funny square glasses like Benjamin Franklin. And he had this New York accent and had... He was obese. Very strange character.

But he sat there and he said to all the incoming students, he's say, 'What are you interested in?' And whatever they were interested in, he would try to talk them out of it. So I was watching this. And he says to me, 'What are you interested in?' And I said, 'Neurobiology.' And he said, 'That crock of shit. I defy you to tell me one good paper that's ever been written in that field.' So I was very happy, I'd just read this paper of what a frog's eye tells the frog's brain. So I started explaining it to him. And he said... He listened to me and he had never listened to anybody else much but he asked me questions and I thought, wow, it really helps to have your facts, have done your homework.

But then he starts asking me, 'Well, I don't understand, how do they measure that? Doesn't that...? How do you get the probe in the neuron the second time? How do you...? And doesn't this result contradict that result?' And he starts asking me all these questions that I hadn't thought about and completely tears apart the paper. And just makes it seem like nonsense. And after a while he says, 'Now I want you to... you know, is that an example of a good paper?' I was like, 'No, I guess not.' And he's like, 'Yes, and what about the person who wrote it? They couldn't have... You know, they must have either been dishonest or stupid, right?' I was like, 'Well, I have to admit, it doesn't sound like they really thought it through very much.' He was like, 'Okay, thank you, I... That's all I wanted to hear you say.' And he goes onto the next person.

Then people come up and pat me on the back and say, 'Guess who you were talking to? That was Jerry Lettvin, the guy that wrote the paper you were talking about.' That was my introduction to MIT. And the irony is that Jerry Lettvin and I became friends and he did convince me that I didn't want to go into neurobiology, I wanted to go into computers. And he said that I should go meet Marvin Minsky. Which is a whole other story.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: What a Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain, Massachussets Intitute of Technology, Jerome Lettvin

Duration: 3 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017