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Professor Richard Langton Gregory, 1923 – 2010

Richard rigging up a telescope to project an image of the Transit of Venus across the disc of the Sun at 5 AM on 8 June 2004

Richard rigging up a telescope to project an image of the Transit of Venus across the disc of the Sun at 5 AM on 8 June 2004 Tom Troscianko

Press release issued: 24 May 2010

Richard Gregory, CBE, DSc, FRSE, FRS, Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol, died peacefully on 17 May 2010 after suffering a stroke. His family and close friends were with him.

Richard Gregory, CBE, DSc, FRSE, FRS and Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol, died peacefully on 17 May 2010 after suffering a stroke. His family and close friends were with him.

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 his 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 where he produced his first and arguably most famous book: Eye and Brain (1966), now in its 5th 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 Hermann von 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 as a consequence, 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 the University of Bristol to set up the Brain and Perception Laboratory in the Medical School. The invitation 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 technology.

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 images 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 of 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@Bristol.

His research was bearing fruit and revealing truths about how we see depth, colour, and illusions, which were thought to be examples of when the brain ‘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 – it included papers ranging from art to philosophy. He remained active in this arena and this year saw the launch of i-Perception, an online open-access version of Perception.

Richard formally retired when he reached his 65th birthday in 1988, and a ‘Gregoryfest’ was held in his honour. However, his retirement was purely notional and he remained at his desk in the Department of Experimental Psychology until a few days before his death. He continued to participate 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

Further information

The BBC Radio Four programme, Last Word, carried an obituary of Richard Gregory. It is the first item in the programme.
Please contact Diana Wilkins for further information.