Thursday, June 7, 2018

i remember Larry Weiskrantz

it's been a long time since i last posted. it's been some funny few months, more than just busy. i'll explain in another post.

today i have to finish a piece that is almost overdue.


when i tell people i went to Oxford for graduate school, and i study consciousness, people often ask if i have worked with Larry Weiskrantz. short answer is: no, not really. he only taught me how to tickle myself.

there is a longer version of the story, but i'm sorry that it is no less corny.

when i was a graduate student in Dick Passingham's lab, it was clear from the beginning that i had no idea what i was doing. with inexplicable kindness, Dick trained me from scratch; i literally didn't even know where the central sulcus was.

my general scientific ignorance, together with being a foreign student, mean that often i found it easier to sit by my office and read, rather than to socialize at work. Larry would call in now and then, check on how i was doing. in the beginning he would just crack some random jokes, perhaps to cheer me up as i probably looked miserable and overworked. i wasn't expecting the retired former head of department to be quite so friendly. at one point he realized my real interest was to study consciousness, he seemed ever the more amused. consciousness? with Dick? and a philosophical bent! really!?! oh how wonderful!

we would bump into each other in the corridor, at talks, at conferences, but most often he would call in - sometimes looking for another colleague who worked in the same office - and casually take a peek at what i've been reading. from there we would often talk a little, especially if i were (caught) reading something 'conceptual'. sometimes these 'tutorials' were short, in the form of a pun  - sometimes at the expense of the relevant author - followed by a jolly smile. but sometimes they could be more elaborate, with interesting historical references too.

once i was reading a paper by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Daniel Wolpert, and Chris Frith, an fMRI study on why we can't tickle ourselves. with some pride Larry told me he had done a similar behavioral study decades earlier, and one of the authors was my advisor Dick's wife, Claire! what a small world!

i told him i'd read the paper and come back to chat with him more about it. but he said unfortunately he had to have back surgery and may not see me for a while. before goodbye, he said: maybe next time i see you i can tickle myself~

i did see Larry in a few weeks, and the surgery went ok. i was glad to be able to hear more stories.

but he never told me that in this small world, Dick was also once a postdoc in his lab. had he done so, maybe i would not have been so completely puzzled when Dick told me i could study whatever topic i wanted, when i stayed on to do a postdoc with him after my PhD. i asked Dick: really? i can study visual awareness in your lab even though you told me many times you have little interest in perception? but why?

i have never gotten an answer to that, just as Larry never told me why he had a young postdoc working on action and the prefrontal cortex in his lab, funded by a grant on visual awareness.

they say there are two kinds of scientists: the creative and the careful. Larry was certainly well known for being enormously imaginative, but i think it would be wrong to think he didn't value careful experimentation just as much. you can tell by how he chose his colleagues and collaborators. just as he was quick to crack irreverent jokes, i vividly remembered how stern he looked, with disapproval, when i once described someone else's decade-old study with the details mixed up. from Larry, i've learned that you can be funny and serious at the same time. to do good science, you have to be.

another time we were discussing with another professor how long it may take for one to read a doctoral thesis, and Larry said he would spend at least one day just to check all the references. i don't think that was a joke.

the power of puns and jokes is, they can stay on even if people don't fully get what they mean. i think Larry understood that. what does blindsight really mean? everyone says they know what is it, but do they truly get how deep the implications are? i guess it is our jobs to see to it they do. Larry had done enough for us.

every now and then, as i read papers i thought of how serious Larry was about getting things exactly right, especially regarding knowing the literature. i would recall his stern look of disapproval and feel we all still have a lot of shaping up to do. but as though he would also remind us: don't forget to tickle yourself now and then to see what happens too!

thank you Larry, those puns meant a lot to an awkward graduate student, once trying too hard to impress

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