[visionlist] Richard Gregory 1923 - 2010

Tom Troscianko tom.troscianko at bristol.ac.uk
Wed May 19 15:23:40 GMT 2010

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Professor Richard Langton Gregory, 1923 – 2010

Richard Gregory, CBE, D.Sc., FRSE, FRS, Emeritus Professor of 
Neuropsychology died peacefully on 17 May 2010 at the Bristol Royal 
Infirmary, after suffering a stroke. His family and close friends were 
in attendance.

Richard had a long and distinguished life as a scholar who tried to 
understand the way in which humans perceive the world. His career path, 
like the rest of his thinking, was unconventional. He left school at 17, 
without any A-levels, because of the outbreak of the Second World War. 
He served in the RAF (Signals) and, when the war was over, he was given 
the task of explaining the technicalities of radar and communication 
systems to the general public while standing in a bomb site in Oxford 
Street. This attracted some 4 million visitors in six months, and 
clearly triggered his interest in problems of target detection and 
communication, as well as the ability to communicate these complex 
issues in an engaging manner.

This skill and passion remained with him for the rest of his life. He 
read Philosophy and Experimental Psychology at Downing College, 
Cambridge and went on to a research post at the MRC Applied Psychology 
Unit in Cambridge. In the 1950s and 60s he was a Lecturer in the 
Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University, and 
produced his first and arguably most famous book: “Eye and Brain” 
(1966), now in its 5^th edition. This book became the Psychology 
equivalent of the Feynman Lectures in Physics – a book that inspired a 
generation of psychologists to get immersed in the intricacies of 
perception. His research looked at how information about scenes, such as 
how far objects are, can be extracted by the senses and then compared to 
stored information about what might be “out there”. This was a process 
proposed by previous scholars, including Helmholtz, but Richard extended 
and tested it in ingenious ways. As always, he explained the underlying 
theory so that it was accessible to all. He loved constructing 
mechanical and optical equipment and had decidedly mixed views about the 
advent of computers to run psychological experiments. His passion for 
optics derived no doubt from having a father who was an astronomer.

Richard revived his interest in communications, automated systems, and 
robotics and so, in 1967, he was the co- founder of the Department of 
Machine Intelligence and Perception at the University of Edinburgh. This 
venture marked the foundation of academic research in Artificial 
Intelligence. In 1970, he was persuaded to come to Bristol University to 
set up the Brain and Perception Laboratory, on the F floor of the 
Medical School. The persuasion to come to Bristol originated from Dr W. 
Grey Walter, a brilliant neurophysiologist at the Burden Neurological 
Institute, who also built autonomous robots. Richard immersed himself in 
work on both fundamental principles of perceptual science, as revealed 
by experiments using his trademark apparatus, and occasionally exotic 
applied issues. I arrived to work in his lab in 1978 and was amazed to 
see a flight simulator consisting of a vertical landscape like a model 
railway on its side (the reason for this being that the lab was taller 
than it was wide) over which optical telescopes could be driven by 
complex mechanical systems, and their image projected onto a screen. 
Later, an optical zoom system for this was made by spinning a pan of 
mercury on a record turntable at various speeds. Richard was granted 
many patents, including one for a vibrating microscope.

He never lost his skill at explaining things to the public, and was much 
impressed by the Exploratorium in San Francisco – the world’s first 
interactive science centre. Richard raised the funds for a new venture - 
the Exploratory in the Engine Shed at Temple Meads Station. This later 
moved to the Harbourside development and became the much-admired 
Explore at Bristol.

His research was bearing fruit, and was revealing truths about how we 
see depth, colour, and illusions, which were thought to be examples of 
when the system “gets it wrong” and therefore of particular interest. He 
founded the scholarly journal “Perception”, published by a small company 
in London rather than a multinational, which rapidly gained a reputation 
for high-quality science but with a broader remit than other journals – 
including papers ranging from art to philosophy. He remained active in 
this arena, and this year saw the launch of “i-Perception”, an 
open-access version of “Perception”.

Richard formally retired when he reached his 65^th birthday in 1988, and 
a “Gregoryfest” was held in his honour. However, his retirement was 
purely nominal and he remained at his desk in the Department of 
Experimental Psychology until a few days before his death. He still 
collaborated in major scientific projects, including the relationship 
between vision and action. His book “Seeing and Illusions – Making sense 
of the Senses” was published in 2009. In 2007 the Bristol Vision 
Institute (BVI) was founded, being in many ways a successor to the Brain 
and Perception Lab. The BVI organised a second Gregoryfest in December 
2009, to celebrate the failure of Richard to retire in the 21 years 
since 1988.

Richard’s achievements are too numerous to outline here – it is best to 
think of him as a unique interdisciplinary thinker before that word 
became trendy. But most of us will remember him for his enthusiasm, his 
passion for terrible puns, and his belief that true understanding comes 
from combining thinking and having fun. He will be missed as a friend, a 
mentor, and an example to us all.

Professor Tom Troscianko

Richard’s website: http://www.richardgregory.org/cv.htm

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