David Hubel

Yesterday in the NYT, “David Hubel, Nobel-Winning Scientist, Dies at 87” by Denise Gellene:

Dr. David Hubel, who was half of an enduring scientific team that won a Nobel Prize for explaining how the brain assembles information from the eye’s retina to produce detailed visual images of the world, died on Sunday in Lincoln, Mass.

… Dr. Hubel (pronounced HUGH-bull) and his collaborator, Dr. Torsten Wiesel, shared the 1981 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine with Roger Sperry for discovering ways that the brain processes information. Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel concentrated on visual perception, initially experimenting on cats; Dr. Sperry described the functions of the brain’s left and right hemispheres.

Very cool science.

Before Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel started their research in the 1950s, scientists had long believed that the brain functioned like a movie screen — projecting images exactly as they were received from the eye. Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel showed that the brain behaves more like a microprocessor, deconstructing and then reassembling details of an image to create a visual scene.

By measuring the electrical impulses of cells in the visual cortex, the scientists discovered that cells respond to straight lines, movement and contrast — features that delineate objects in the environment. They further found that some cells fire rapidly in response to horizontal lines, while other cells prefer vertical lines or angles.

… “David and Torsten did more than open up the study of the primary visual cortex; they laid the basis of all that was to follow in the sensory systems,” Dr. Eric R. Kandel, a Nobel laureate, wrote in a recent commentary about their research. “Together this body of work stands as one of the great biological achievements of the 20th century.”

… In 1959, the scientists were recruited … to Harvard Medical School, where Dr. Hubel spent the rest of his career. He maintained his lab well past his official retirement, and until January taught a freshman seminar, in which students learned to use soldering irons to build biomedical instruments, and received training in surgical techniques.

A life of enthusiasm for science.

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