Mike was a wonderful colleague
Created by Leon 9 months ago
Having worked on vision since my PhD, I had heard Mike’s name mentioned many times over the years, always in a somewhat reverential way. But my first opportunity to have a proper chat with him didn’t come until 2012, when I was visiting Sussex to give a talk, with a view to possibly moving my lab from Cambridge. We met in Mike’s office off a slightly dingy corridor in the John Maynard Smith Building. Amongst the papers by his desk was an odd contraption that looked like a cycle helmet with tubes attached and I asked him what it was. With a half-smile and a little ceremony Mike put it on his head and explained that it was a device for recording eye movements, an aspect of vision that he had been working on of late (I later found out since about 1992, when he published his first paper on the topic in Nature). With a feeling for the comical, Mike invited me to try it on but it didn’t fit me very well – I guess it was designed for his smaller head. It is quintessentially Mike that he chose a picture of himself wearing this headgear for a wonderful chapter on “Sensory Systems” that he contributed to “Making the Future”, a history of the University of Sussex on its 50th anniversary. The legend comments “It didn’t work very well”. I have posted the picture here.
During our conversation Mike had described the eye movements that cricket batsmen make when dealing with fast balls and the strategy that they used to judge how to meet it. In my lab we had begun to analyze how the visual system judges the position of a fast-moving object, particularly how the retina compensates for the lag introduced by the slow speed of the process by which light is converted into an electrical signal. So I looked up Mike’s paper and was provided with a delicious treat (Land M.F., McLeod P. (2000) From eye movements to actions: how batsmen hit the ball. Nature Neuroscience 3: 1340-1345). Most scientific writing these days is formulaic and dry, but Mike had a very distinctive style, mixing hard analysis with fun. The paper compares eye-movements in three batsmen of different standard, Mark, Charlie and poor Richard, who appears to be the control - “an enthusiastic but incompetent amateur who plays low-level club cricket”. In this paper Mike takes pleasure in the role of cultural interpreter explaining cricket to the benighted (especially the audience in North America). He summarizes the game thus: “The rules of cricket have evolved to produce a balanced contest between the visual-motor skills of the batsman and the strength and skill of the bowler. Batting is possible (or batsmen would refuse to play), but not all the time (or bowlers would refuse to play). The abilities of the best batsmen against the fastest bowlers reveal the limits of the visual-motor system.”. On the batsman’s task he quotes former England captain David Gower: “The key to playing all strokes is to see quickly the line and length of the ball and to move early into the appropriate position” with a reference to the coaching manual of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Terms such as line and length are then described in a very helpful glossary within the Methods section, that ends: “The option for the batsman to play entirely defensively, if he wishes, contributes much to the character of the game (and to its inscrutability as a spectacle to viewers more familiar with baseball).”.
I left Mikes office with a parting gift of his book “Animal Eyes”. That meeting was the highlight of my day and of course I moved to Sussex. When I arrived he helped me with what he called “dodgy advice” as we established Sussex Neuroscience, a University-wide research programme. Of course the advice wasn’t dodgy – it was borne of the best academic values and a strong desire to see his discipline prosper at the University. Mike was an extremely original and insightful scientist but he also brought warmth, fun and a generosity of spirit to his everyday dealings with his colleagues. The package was irresistible and inimicable.