Since their inception in 1945, the AAAS Science Journalism Awards have honored professional journalists for distinguished reporting on the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. In recognition of a generous endowment by The Kavli Foundation, the awards now are called the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards, and the contest is open to journalists worldwide.
Intrigued by how little has been written about Walter Pitts, a logician known for his contributions to artificial intelligence and cybernetics, writer Amanda Gefter embarked on a journey to uncover Pitts’ character and personal life, including his collaboration with neuropsychologist Walter McCulloch. Pitts was bullied as a child in Detroit and took refuge in the local library where he taught himself Greek, Latin, logic, and mathematics. He ran away from home at age 15, became a pioneer in neuroscience and cybernetics at MIT, and later became a withdrawn alcoholic. McCulloch was born at the other end of the economic spectrum in a family of privilege, but the two had a fruitful collaboration. Gefter’s Nautilus story about Pitts, “The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic,” won the 2015 AAAS Kavli Silver award in the Magazine category. In an interview with Nkongho Beteck, Gefter describes what sparked her interest in Pitts, why she decided to share his story with others, and what she has learned since the story appeared.
How did you become interested in science writing?
When I was a teenager my father and I would have these conversations about the nature of reality and the meaning of nothingness. When I was 21, I heard about a physics conference that was happening in Princeton, New Jersey. It was going to be about the nature of reality, and all the physicists that my dad and I were reading about were going to be there. I had this great idea that we’d get into the conference by pretending to be science journalists. So, I had gotten a press badge and managed to get one for my dad, and we went to the conference pretending to be journalists.
I had this epiphany: “Oh! If I was a science writer, I would get to do this all the time.” I ended up writing a story for Scientific American after going to that conference. So in a way, the fake journalism career became a real journalism career.
How did you come across Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch?
I was looking into the history of neuroscience leading up to the rise of modern neuroscience in the 1950s and I kept coming back to this paper that Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts had co-authored called, “A Logical Calculus.” This was a remarkable paper historically because it was the first time that anyone had made a mathematical model showing what the brain actually does. At the time people had some sense of neurophysiology and a brain made up of a bunch of neurons. But no one had any sense of what the neurons were actually doing. McCulloch and Pitts realized that they were enacting logical operations and processing information.
I became really interested in the paper, which a lot of people have been, but then I was curious about who these guys were that wrote it. I looked first into McCulloch, who is a little more well-known. He’s a fascinating character-- wild, really, really brilliant. I got a collection of his papers and I was reading them, and then I realized he actually wrote poetry. It was something that really struck me.
Walter Pitts was much more of an enigma. It seemed very few people had looked into his life story. When I began to search around, I found that Walter Pitts also wrote poetry, so my original idea for the article was something like “Poets of the Mind” because I was so fascinated by this literary quality to their work. These two guys didn’t necessarily separate their science from their art. It was an interesting moment in science where the birth of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, computer science, linguistics and all these fields kind of unified, and I had the sense that the interdisciplinary nature of their thinking was related to the fact that they didn’t confine themselves to a very limited idea of what it meant to be a scientist. They were scientist-poets.
What led to your decision to have Pitts be the focus of the story?
As I read through all their letters and papers I came to see that Walter Pitts was the more interesting story because he was a teenager and a runaway, he was homeless when they wrote that paper, McCulloch had taken him in. It was a crazy story that very few people had ever heard. The more I got to know their friendship and personalities through the letters, I changed the way I was thinking about the story. Even in science writing – or maybe especially in science writing—you have to follow the emotion. The friendship between Pitts and McCulloch was clearly the emotional heart of the story, and I had to let that take the lead, even if it meant ditching the poetry angle. Then, because there was so little written about Pitts, it required a lot of digging and going through archives. It made me realize how fun that kind of research is and how much I really like it.
What was the writing process like? Did you have any hesitations combining biography with science?
It seemed natural to me to combine the two, to tell the personal story along with the scientific story. As I was reading through these letters at the American Philosophical Society, I felt like I got to know these characters on a personal level, which is a really amazing experience. When you’re doing original archival research, there’s an immediacy and an intimacy to it—the science and the history come alive, you’re in these characters’ heads and it makes you really care about them and about their work. I wanted to give the reader a little bit of that feeling that I had. Their friendship and their personalities did influence the way they were doing science. In terms of sources, most of it was based off the letters. I’d found a couple oral histories that had a lot of details and anecdotes. What’s been really interesting, actually, is there weren't many living sources as far as I knew at the time. As far as I knew, Walter Pitts had no family because he ran away when he was very young and never spoke to his family again. He had never married or had kids. So I didn’t go to any family thinking I could get any information that way.
But after the article came out, some of Pitts’ family actually contacted me. More sources have come out of the woodwork since the article came out. I actually learned a lot more since then. That was kind of amazing.
What was some of the new information you’d learned after the story was published?
When Pitts left home, he was an only child. But it turned out his parents had two more sons after he’d run away. So he did have two brothers that he didn’t know. The wife of one of his brothers’ very kindly reached out to me. She had some letters and things of Walter’s, as well as insights into his family life and his childhood. She also had some great stories of Pitts and Lettvin, one of the other characters in the article, playing all these pranks. It was all these little stories I wish I’d known beforehand. Maybe at some point I can write more about him, maybe add to the story. I’d never had this experience where you publish a story and all these new sources appear and you’re learning so much after the fact.
What advice would you give a writer covering such a story?
Let the research direct you. Be open and willing to change what the story really is as you go along. That was definitely something that happened here.
Also, follow the stories that you’re genuinely curious about. I think that makes all the difference. When you have that passion and curiosity, it comes out in the piece. If you’re curious, it makes the reader curious.
The third thing, do as much primary source research as you can. When you go back to these original documents and look at letters and notebooks and early drafts of the papers that have become legendary, you find the full history and you find yourself feeling personally invested in it. You get to know these people. I think it’s this amazing experience for you as a writer and something that translates really well into your writing.
Lastly, with great science writing, you can tell when the writer really understands what they're talking about. I would advise young science writers to not just repeat back what scientists tell you but to make sure you really understand it yourself and feel comfortable explaining it in your own words. That makes all the difference in the writing.
Do you find it challenging to communicate science journalism to the general public?
When I’m working on a story I never ask myself, “How can I convince a person that this matters?” Curiosity is contagious. As long as I really care and I really feel that it matters then that passion will come through in the writing and the reader will probably care too.
I also don’t believe that some things are just too technical to put into words. If you understand the meaning of something, you can explain it. When I see phrases like, “The details are too technical to go into…” I know it’s a cop out. It either means the writer doesn’t understand the science or they don’t trust that the reader will. You should always trust the reader. I often hear people say, “Write it like you’re explaining it to a child.” Have some reader in mind, and an unsophisticated one at that. I disagree with that. The worst crime in science writing is when the writer speaks down to the reader, insults their intelligence, or dumbs down the science to the point where it’s not interesting anymore, or you’re losing something important. I try to write as if I was the one reading it. You’ll avoid speaking down to the reader that way. It’s the Golden Rule of science writing: write unto the reader as you would have them write unto you.
How did you feel after you found out that you had won the award?
I was definitely surprised and excited to learn that I’d won. The response in general has been way more than I would’ve ever expected. It’s all due to Walter Pitts and the fact that he had an incredible story, so I think people are really responding to him, as they should because he was a really fascinating guy.
I often write about theoretical science and abstract stuff, and people respond well but this was such a different type of response. This character-driven piece made me realize how people really respond more to stories about people than just stories about abstract ideas. It was a good lesson for me to see if you can embed this abstract science into a narrative with a strong character that resonates with people so much more.
After all of your experience, would you say you believe being a good science journalist is something that can be learned?
Absolutely. I feel like I’ve learned a lot as I’ve done it, so I know it can be learned for sure. I’m still learning. I think the passion is the main thing, then experience, learning the field and learning who are the key people in the field and building good relationships with the scientists. If they trust that you’re going to get it right, then they’ll be more willing to talk to you and let you know when some new exciting thing is going on. The hardest part in a way is the actual writing. There’s always a question of, “Can you learn to be a writer? Is that something you need to have a natural talent for?” I think you can learn anything.