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Brain Quest

Pat McGovern ’59 founded an IT publishing empire, but his first love remains neuroscience.
March 13, 2006

Pat McGovern ‘59 spent most of his boyhood Saturdays at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, entranced by the wonders of organic chemistry, electrostatic power, and airplane design. In 1953, at age 15, he borrowed Edmund Berkeley’s Giant Brains: or, Machines That Think from the library. Reading it, McGovern became enthralled with the idea that machines could emulate, and perhaps even expand the capacity of, the human brain.

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The book would have a profound impact on his life; the development of thinking machines and the study of thinking became his driving passions. McGovern’s fascination with brain science dominated his career at MIT. His eagerness to accelerate the advance of computing led him to found an empire around information technology research and publishing. And once computers grew powerful enough to become useful tools in the quest to unravel the mysteries of the brain, McGovern’s two passions converged with the founding of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT (see “Neuroscience Central”).

During his freshman year of high school in Philadelphia, McGovern created build-your-own cloud chamber kits and galvanometer kits in his basement and sold them for $20 apiece to students who needed help coming up with senior science projects. But McGovern himself was drawn to the concept of thinking machines.

Shortly after devouring Giant Brains, he invested some of his science kit and paper route earnings at the hardware store, buying plywood, bell wire, carpet tacks, linoleum strips, and light bulbs and sockets. McGovern went home and built a relay-based computer system that played an unbeatable game of tic-tac-toe – and frustrated his friends, who could never do better than tie the machine. To keep their interest, he rejiggered his computer to make every 40th move random, thus allowing them to win occasionally. When MIT alumni in Philadelphia got wind of his invention, they encouraged him to apply to the Institute, which ultimately offered him a full scholarship.

McGovern headed to Cambridge. Like most new MIT students, he quickly discovered that he was not the only whiz kid on campus. “In high school, you get a lot of psychic income, because people think of you as a genius in math and science. You get all the top grades and win all the awards,” he says. “And then you come to MIT and find that everyone else who’s arriving has had the same experience.”

At MIT, McGovern majored in biology and life sciences, taking courses taught by Walter Pitts, Warren McCullough, and Jerry Lettvin, and completed an undergraduate thesis under neurophysiologist Pat Wall. “There was a lot of excitement about artificial intelligence at that time,” says McGovern. “I found it a fascinating area. But I also began to realize that with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between them, the complexity of the brain was so much beyond what could be analyzed by the computers we had. The tools to tackle the problem of the way in which the brain works were much too primitive.”

Although primitive, computers were clearly the wave of the future. So in 1957, during his junior year, McGovern answered a bulletin board notice advertising an opening for a part-time editor at Computers and Automation, the first computer magazine. As a writer for the Tech, McGovern was no stranger to journalism. (His “Beaver Predicts” column in the Tech predicted sports outcomes with 90 percent accuracy, mostly by forecasting losses for MIT.) And the magazine’s founder, Ed Berkeley, was impressed that McGovern had read his Giant Brains book. McGovern landed the job – and liked it so much, he signed on full time after graduation.

During a 1964 trip to New York to meet with hardware vendors, McGovern was struck by the fact that leading computer makers were investing in technology development with no clear understanding of market needs. On the train back to Boston, he sketched out his idea for a computer industry research service he called International Data Corporation – and collected 12 prepaid orders for his service within two weeks. Three years later, he pulled together the first issue of Computerworld in the 10 days before the Data Processing Management Association show opened in Boston.

McGovern’s entrepreneurial ventures would grow into International Data Group, which today publishes 300-plus magazines and is the world’s leading technology media, research, and event company, with annual revenues of $2.68 billion. Although McGovern’s career veered off the neuroscience track, he maintained a close relationship with MIT, becoming a member of the corporation in 1989 and a life member in 1998.

By the mid-1990s, McGovern felt that technologies like high-speed computing and functional magnetic resonance imaging could take neuroscience to the next level. He was also convinced that civilization badly needed such a breakthrough. As chairman of a company that does business in 85 countries, he had seen enough of the world to conclude that the need to understand how the brain works was pressing.

“Human nature seems so much alike in every culture and country. Yet there are such conflicts in the world,” McGovern observes. After visiting one country and finding its people warm, wonderful, and hospitable, he’d go to the next country and find the same thing. “But if I said, “I just visited those very nice neighbors of yours across the river,’ they’d say, “Oh no, they’re untrustworthy, they’re not as bright as we are. We think of them as people we want to avoid,’” McGovern recalls. “It seemed that for evolutionary survival, distrusting foreigners was helpful, because you never knew when someone had bad intent.”

But in a world with nuclear and chemical weapons, he says it’s critical to understand how our brains work – and that some perceptions are based on expectations, not reality. “Once you understand an optical illusion, you can see that your mind is making a flat surface look like two oscillating, three-dimensional objects, and you can say, Well, gee, my brain isn’t telling me the truth about this,” he explains. “So there could be other issues that lead to prejudice and conflict in the world that could be resolved if people become more cognizant of how the brain converts sensory information into perception.”

Fortunately, his success at IDG gave McGovern the means to invest in the advancement of neuro-science. His wife, Lore Harp McGovern, whose own success as an entrepreneur began with the cofounding of Vector Graphics (one of the first PC companies), also wanted to help push neuroscience forward. After consulting neuroscientists and Nobel laureates, they decided to launch the McGovern Institute of Brain Research. The institute would have 18 labs – enough to encourage cross-discipline collaboration, but not so many that it would become bureaucratic.

The McGoverns zeroed in on seven possible university sites and ultimately chose Pat’s alma mater, convinced that MIT’s collaborative approach would be essential for understanding how the brain works. “Many of the universities were divided up into academic departments like stovepipes,” says McGovern. “MIT had the very best reputation for being problem-centric, with no academic boundaries.” The $350 million the McGoverns gave to endow the institute is the largest gift ever made to MIT.

The McGoverns view the McGovern Institute at MIT as a test bed, since the plan is to establish two more McGovern institutes – one in Asia, another in Europe – within the next decade. The idea is to support the world’s most talented neuroscientists without forcing them to move to Cambridge.

McGovern muses that were he a freshman arriving at MIT today, he might become a neuroscientist himself. Although a career switch isn’t imminent, McGovern’s influence on the field of neuroscience is likely to be substantial. It’s an influence, however, that’s deliberately indirect.

“The way you really run a research institution is you find the brightest and best people you can and let them go ahead and follow their own enthusiasms,” he says. “If we’re lucky, the outputs will be very helpful for improving human communications, understanding, education, and learning, and for tackling some of the illnesses like autism, Alzheimer’s, ADD, schizophrenia, and other major mental illnesses that cause so much suffering and loss of productivity in the world.”

For a man whose own life has been marked by extraordinary productivity and success, it’s a fitting legacy.

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