Eyes, Flies and Automobiles

Created by Ian 3 years ago

I miss Mike as my friend and colleague of over 40 years. I first saw, but did not meet, Mike at one of the talks he gave on scallop eyes at the Zoology Department in Cambridge. I found it outstanding in clarity and originality – an opinion confirmed by the fact that an eminent female member of staff did not congratulate him on the clarity of his talk: the kiss of death she so often delivered during the stunned silence following a deadly seminar. I first met Mike when I was interviewed by Richard Andrew and members of Biology and Experimental Psychology for a lectureship in Neurobiology at the University of Sussex at the end of 1969. It was wonderful to discover that he and I shared common interests and approaches to the study of sensory neuroscience, although his bits (eyes) were around the corner from my bits (ears). We were also both keen gardeners and fascinated by wild orchids. The South Downs are covered in them from spring to early summer. Annoyingly, he had a spectacular lizard orchid in his front garden at the White House on Cuilfail, where we were neighbours for many very happy years. The lizard orchid appeared every year for a long time until my suppressed fantasy, which involved a bottle of biodeath, may have materialized. 
We both liked science that involved making things. My favourite of his was a simple fire-polished capillary tube and a bent wire that enabled him and Tom Collett to understand how flies track objects, especially other flies. Mike took special delight in this piece of kit because a very important German scientist had built a massively expensive servo-controlled accurately machined stainless steel ball to address the same questions posed by Mike and Tom. The servo ball machine worked only when the important scientist had waxed the head of the fly to its thorax. Mike and Tom discovered that flies move their heads to track objects and that their bodies follow their heads. Fortunately, stainless steel can be recycled!
Early on, I thought Mike had an interest that I did not share. I was in my lab/office and just outside was Mike, staring with great concentration at the pointing in the brickwork. Mike had several foibles; I could appreciate this, but brickwork left me cold. That day, however, I joined him in gazing at the pointing. It turned out that pointing is a runway for jumping spiders, and he was collecting these tiny exponents of the highland fling to look at their eyes and visual behaviour. His love of building things (and climbing trees) combined in the construction of a tree house and, together with his love of producing strange noises from bits of tubing, manifested itself in the production of beautiful instruments and mediaeval music.
Eye movements in animals, including humans, for tasks that included image stabilization during movements and target fixation, fascinated him greatly in recent years. He designed a wonderful, successful, albeit Heath Robinson, eye scanner for measuring human eye movements, including those involved in car and racing car driving, tea-making and cricket. I seem to remember a video of the eye movements of a person driving down a curving road from near Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Those of the passenger are not shown, probably because his eyes were tightly closed. I was also invited to have a go with the device in his swivel chair. He was interested in saccades and smooth tracking. I never saw the outcome of his measurements. I hope it was at the ‘right’ end of the primate to chameleon scale.
Mike’s enthusiasm for his subject and his ability to communicate made his teaching very attractive to students and he drew the attention and enthusiasm of some outstanding students with outstanding ideas of their own. I also benefitted from his friendship because he was not only a source of inspiration and rude jokes but was one half of a mutual sounding board for ideas and a prop for times when life threw up too much stuff.
Mike you are missed but will always be there in my thoughts – particularly when I get any new ideas.