[visionlist] Colin Blakemore 1944-2022

Peter Neri neri.peter at googlemail.com
Wed Jul 6 06:06:46 -04 2022

For as much as it was expected, this is very sad news.

I was one of Colin's graduate students. I first met him in the late 1990's,
when I visited Oxford to interview for their funded DPhil programme. I had
read some of his articles as an undergrad, and I had developed an image of
someone very senior. Which was a correct image, of course, except Colin
looked so much younger than his age, that when he introduced himself to me,
I thought he was a different person with a similar name!

As Andrew said, Colin was generous with his time, particularly when it came
to important matters. Because I could not afford to go to Oxford without a
scholarship, this was an important matter to me. Colin was extremely
supportive and helpful in making sure I would be funded to join his lab.
When I returned to Italy after my visit, I remember exchanging emails with
him and wondering how someone who had only met me once, and who was so
famous and established, would find the time to write to me on a nearly
daily basis to sort out a funding plan for me.

I have many stories from the time I spent in his lab. Colin's schedule was
understandably packed, but meeting up with him was about quality time, and
there was inevitably much to learn. Although a physiologist at heart, Colin
greatly admired the elegance of psychophysics, and (as we all know) had
done some important work in this area. It was fun discussing psychophysical
designs with him - he had a keen sense of the trickiness involved, and was
always on the lookout for potential pitfalls where "bloody psychophysics!"
(as he would say to me) could catch you off guard.

Colin's writing skills were legendary. It was said that, in the old days
before the age of digital editors, he would dictate articles directly into
a voice recorder, word by word without corrections or interruptions, pass
the tape on to his secretary who typed it into an old-fashioned machine,
and send the manuscript off to the journal without any need for revision. I
am sure this account is not entirely accurate, but it is believable, which
says it all. When you read his classics from those days, the clarity of
thought and exposition are such that you read them not so much for their
scientific content, but to learn the craft of scientific writing.

I have witnessed those skills in action. When preparing our article with
Andrew, there were times when Andrew and I could not get some bits to meet
word requirements and still make sense. Andrew would say "this is a job for
Colin." I would then go over to Colin's office, and marvel at how he could
both wield and mould text at the same time.

As others have pointed out, it was often surprising for people to witness
Colin's willingness to engage in argumentation with anybody, without
belittling others or discounting them on the basis of their lack of
seniority, fame or what have you. I know some people had a beef with him,
for various reasons. I know some people may not have particularly liked
him, and that is inevitable for someone of his fame and standing. But I do
think that even his most ardent critics would admit, without much
hesitation, that Colin was always willing to engage in genuine
argumentation with anybody regardless of who they were. That is what made
him think he could argue in favour of animal experimentation rationally on
an open platform, and that was certainly my experience as a student. For
someone of his standing, this is not a common trait.

After I left his lab, there were many occasions on which I asked for his
advice. He was always there to provide it. On some of those occasions, I
didn't listen. A few years later, I always regretted not following his

We were lucky enough to have him visit ENS a few years back. We took him
out to dinner in Paris and had great fun. It is a good thing that my last
memory dates back to this visit, when he was as active and engaging as
ever. Nevertheless, the way I will remember him is how he was back at the
lab, which is where I always thought he belonged and was at his best. Life
took him on many journeys away from electrodes, CRT monitors and entangled
cables on the wall, much to the frustration of those who knew that it was
next to those tools that his talent shone brightest. In my memory at least,
that's where he stands, with his endless curiosity and enthusiasm about
science that he passed on to so many of his students and collaborators.

On Fri, Jul 1, 2022 at 3:47 PM Roland Fleming <
roland.w.fleming at psychol.uni-giessen.de> wrote:

> This is incredibly sad news. Colin was both a brilliant scientist and a
> highly charismatic communicator.  As I was friends with one of his
> daughters growing up, I was lucky enough to visit his house many times and
> he was even more charming and inspiring in person than when presenting The
> Mind Machine or the excellent Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.
> Despite his superstar status I always found him to be extremely
> approachable and thoughtful. He will be sorely missed.
> ____________________________
> *Prof. Roland W Fleming, FRSB*
> Kurt Koffka Professor of Experimental Psychology, Justus Liebig
> University, Giessen
> Executive Director, Centre for Mind, Brain and Behaviour, Universities
> of Marburg and Giessen
> Otto-Behaghel-Str 10, 35394 Giessen, GERMANY
> tel: 0641 99-26140
> http://www.allpsych.uni-giessen.de/fleminglab
> On 30 Jun 2022, at 22:03, Andrew Parker <andrew.parker at dpag.ox.ac.uk>
> wrote:
> We are very sorry to let the vision community know that one of our leading
> lights and genius spirits, Colin Blakemore, passed away on Monday 27th
> June. As many of you may already know, this was a consequence of motor
> neuron disease. Colin’s daughters were with him in the hospice around the
> time of his departure.
> Colin was a person of many, many talents but was especially known to
> vision researchers for his work on binocular vision, its early
> developmental plasticity and the potential  consequence of errors of
> development for adult visual dysfunction, notably in the emergence of
> amblyopia. His interest in these topics continued throughout his career.
> He made many scientific contributions over a wide field of neuroscience
> but will also be remembered for his passionate devotion to the cause of
> public understanding of science. He often appeared in radio or TV
> programmes to promote or explain new scientific findings. On occasions, he
> gave precise and unambiguous support for the necessity of studying
> physiology in experimental animals, public statements that sometimes
> incurred personal attacks.
> Colin was generous with his time and energies, helping many others to
> develop and advance their own scientific work and careers. He became the
> longest-serving Waynflete Professor of Physiology at the University of
> Oxford, Director of the Oxford McDonnell Centre in Cognitive Neuroscience
> and held a period of office as Chief Executive of the UK Medical Research
> Council.
> Much more will be written and said about Colin’s influence and
> achievements. We are sure that the many people who were close to him will
> wish to add their voices to this story over the coming weeks and months.
> Andrew Parker
> Tony Movshon
> Ian Thompson
> Zoltan Molnar
> Andrew Parker, Professor of Neuroscience
> Oxford University and St John’s College
> andrew.parker at dpag.ox.ac.uk
> Oxford Anatomy and Physiology ranked #1 in the QS World University
> Rankings by subject 2017, 2018, 2020 & 2021
> Leibniz Institute Fellow and
> Senior Researcher, IBIO
> OVGU Magdeburg
> andrew.parker at ovgu.de
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Peter Neri
Head of Vision Team
Laboratoire des Systèmes Perceptifs (UMR8248)
École Normale Supérieure
29 rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris (France)

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