OSA | Living History

Walter Makous: My first meeting of the OSA

In 1962, the Optical Society of America invited 20 leading investigators of the visual system to its annual meeting in Washington, D. C., to report on advances made during the preceding 10 years in their respective fields.  As an impecunious graduate student working under Lorrin Riggs at Brown University at the time, I scraped together the money to take Amtrak from Providence to Washington and stayed in a barracks-like room at the YMCA for a few dollars a night.  It was an easy walk from the Y to the meetings at the opulent Mayflower Hotel.

The printed versions of the talks (published in the January, 1963, issue of the Journal of the Optical Society of America) do not convey all the excitement and intellectual stimulation of that meeting.  One notable example was an early morning talk given by William Rushton.  In that era Rushton dominated visual science – or at least visual science meetings – more by force of personality than by lasting contributions.  He woke up a sleepy and hung-over audience by promising to “hammer home” six points, whereupon he whipped out a hammer and the first of six signs that he proceeded to nail into the wooden frame of a large blackboard that made a powerful sounding board for the whack of the hammer.  It woke many of us up enough to appreciate his six points, which perhaps warranted the dramatic introduction.  One, for example, was that the then leading theory of dark adaptation (Hecht’s pigment-bleaching theory) was quantitatively off by a factor of several million.

This was the meeting at which Robert Boynton, fresh from postdoctoral work with W. S. Stiles, at Cambridge University, gave a talk extolling the virtues of Stiles’s  mechanisms of color vision.  (It is said that the largess of the U. S. Public Health Service, combined with the state of England’s economy at the time, produced the awkward situation in which the stipend of the postdoc exceeded that of his preceptor.) In response to Boynton’s talk, Leo Hurvich took the podium to decry so much “ in the sky.”  Rumor has it that toward the end of his career, Stiles regretted having so much under-estimated the importance of opponent mechanisms in vision, mechanisms on which Hurvich and his wife, Dorothea Jameson, had based a theory of color vision that remains the seminal model to this day.  So little was known of color mechanisms at the time that Jay Enoch, who had reported at the same meeting his discovery of waveguide modal patterns in cone photoreceptors, was able to suggest, incorrectly, that these waveguide properties could account for the wavelength-selective properties of cones that underlie color vision.

So went the first of a series of annual meetings on vision sponsored by the OSA that even now maintain much of the excitement and verve of that initial meeting.

If it is not too self-indulgent, I would like to append a personal experience.  Some 15 years later, I was invited by the National Science Foundation to serve as a member of its grant-reviewing panel on Sensory Processes and Perception.  As the taxi carried me from the airport to my local accommodations in Washington, D. C., I had the hubris to reflect on the difference in the conditions of my present visit from those of the earlier one, and to wonder what luxurious accommodations had been arranged for me.  I was taken down a peg or two when the taxi delivered me to the very same YMCA at which I had stayed in my earlier visit.  It turns out that it made a good choice because it was directly across the street from the building in which the panel would meet – allowing me to reprise the “easy walk from the Y to the meetings.”

Walter Makous, OSA Fellow