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October 15, 2013

Walter Pitts an introduction

This post is undated since it covers a long period of time.

I've was thinking today about Walter Pitts. Walter was a boyhood friend of my father's  and became an important influence in mine. There are still many books in my personal library with his signature on the flyleaf.

  Walter was a mathematician of enormous talent but little academic provenance. Many people think that if it were not for the nurturing of my father and Warren McCulloch, Walter would have disappeared into obscurity and sometimes I wonder if he would have preferred that.

Okay, the story I heard is that Walter was in his mid teens when a group of Chicago toughs chased him. he took refuge in the library where he picked up a volume on mathematics by the British scientist Alfred North Whitehead. As he waited for his tormentors to leave, he made notes on errors that he found in the book which he then sent in a letter to the author. A short time later re received an invitation to co-author Whitehead's next book.

At this point I have to mention that my father was an inveterate storyteller and I am certain that there must be dozens of variants of this story floating around out there. This version is the one I remember being told.

I'm not going to go ito details of the Pitts mythology as proposed by my father, You can check the Wikipedia articles on both of them and read the emotional debacle of the early cyberneticists in "The Dark Hero of the Information Age".

  There's an easier way to get you most of the way to knowing Walter. The central character in the movie "Pi" (no! not the one with the tiger) is eerily similar in many ways; obsessive, anti-social, a bit paranoid, and self-destructive.

I loved the man. He loved to travel and take photographs, but most of all, at least from my memory, he loved to hike and climb mountains.

Remember the books that I told you had his name on the flyleaf? Almost all of them are on mountaineering, exploring, and climbing. That's the Walter that I remember best, and I wanted to give you a bit of introduction because he will be turning up from time to time in these memoirs.