Mike Land: A brief autobiography (part 2)

Created by Adam 4 months ago
In the early 1980’s Sussex University had a Thatcher-induced financial crisis. Anyone who could remove themselves from the payroll for a couple of years was regarded as a hero. Luckily this coincided with my getting a two-year fellowships at the Australian National University in Canberra, where once again, there was a remarkable coincidence of interesting eye people, including Simon Laughlin, Dan-Eric Nilsson, Daniel Osorio, Joe Howard, David Blest, Eldon Ball and not least my host, Adrian Horridge. A number of us tried to sort out the optics of butterfly eyes, the issue being that butterflies have apposition eyes but their close relative the moths mostly have superposition eyes. How could one type evolve into the other? Dan-Nilsson cracked this by discovering in the bottom of the butterfly crystalline cone a tine lens of immense power (0.2 megadioptres!) which brought the butterfly and the moth structures into line anatomically, but provided the former with apposition-like optics.

After I returned to England I had a new research student, Justin Marshall, who shared my enthusiasm for mantis shrimps – vicious crustaceans with amazing eyes. Within a year or so he had discovered, with Tom Cronin, that they have a colour-vision system based on 9 visual pigments – now extended to 12 as it transpired that they have another 4 in the ultra-violet. They have funny eye movements too, which is where I came in, but it is the colour vision that is so astonishing.

Since about 1990 much of my research has been on human eye movements. About that time I invented a video-based, head-mounted monitor that left the wearer completely free to do ordinary things. The secret was to leave the computation of eye-direction until after the activity was finished, thereby making the device itself very light. So far we have used this system to study driving, playing ball games and sight reading music. Our ethological colleagues would like to take it to a disco to study mate choice, but so far we have resisted this. The questions of interest revolve around the way we sample the world, given that our region on acute vision is only about 1 degree across. Where do we need to look to get the information we need to do things? Answers are emerging, but we get into trouble with some of our psychologist colleagues. “But this is only curiosity driven” they say. “Where are the hypotheses?” The trouble with hypothesis-driven is that you never get to make a discovery. And that’s the real buzz.