Last Sunday, September 22nd, our postdoctoral advisor and mentor David Hunter Hubel died at the age of 87. David Hubel was the recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discoveries concerning information processing in the visual system”. Steve Macknik and were privileged to know David and be trained by him, but his loss leaves every vision neuroscientist an orphan.
To remember David, we excerpt a review that I wrote of his last book “Brain and Visual Perception,” in 2005, for the journal Psyche.
REVIEW OF: D.H. Hubel and T.N. Wiesel. 2004. Brain and Visual Perception: The Story of a 25-Year Collaboration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
In 1981, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning information processing in the visual system.” Brain and Visual Perception is a collection of 28 selected reprints of their most important articles, complete with both Nobel Lectures and extensive new commentary. With the exception of Wiesel’s autobiography, Brain and Visual Perception is written in Hubel’s voice. Hubel is true to his promise of writing the stories behind the research, and restoring “some of the juices” to the articles. The reader is treated to an honest portrayal of Hubel and Wiesel’s humanity, their 25-year partnership, the occasional disappointments in their incredibly successful career, the rare oversights, and above all, “the fun of doing science”.
Hubel’s playful humor makes the book a pleasure to read, and I found myself laughing out loud in several occasions. Hubel and Wiesel’s irreverent attitude towards science “with a capital S” was no doubt highly influenced by their mentor Steve Kuffler, who “enforced” an informal research atmosphere, first at the Wilmer Institute, and then in the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School. Hubel’s love and mastery of English also reflects the mentorship of Kuffler, who “liked to be able to read without being interrupted by difficulties in syntax or logic”.
Having been a postdoc with David Hubel for 5 years, I can attest that reading Brain and Visual Perception feels like listening to Hubel himself. While preparing this review I often found myself reliving the countless conversations I had with Hubel, many of which centered on the very stories in the book.
In Wiesel’s words, Hubel and Wiesel “approached the visual cortex as explorers of a new world”. Advancing through uncharted territory, they were open to anything they might find: through a mixture of naiveté and genius, Hubel and Wiesel discovered the building blocks of visual processing in less than two decades. Hubel describes this effort as a “massive fishing trip”, seldom driven by specific hypotheses, and quickly remarks that “the lack of a hypothesis need not necessarily prevent one from catching big fish”. This is a classic Hubelian reproach of funding agencies who insist that grant proposals must be hypothesis-driven.
A critical aspect of Hubel and Wiesel’s powerful approach was their trailblazing combination of physiological and anatomical techniques. Hubel expresses regret that neuroanatomical methods have fallen out of fashion in contemporary neuroscience: modern awake behaving techniques usually prevent histological processing, and imaging methods generally lack the necessary resolution to determine the microcircuits underlying functional responses. However, my feeling is that recent imaging developments may foretell the rebirth of functional anatomy. Hubel and Wiesel’s coupling of physiology and anatomy revolutionized systems neuroscience 40 years ago. The next functional anatomy revolution may be in sight!
The reprint collection alone would make Brain and Visual Perception a must-have in every neuroscientist’s library, but the book offers much more: a rare opportunity to peek into the minds of the founders of modern visual neurophysiology.