Friday, June 22, 2012

Josh's Obituary in the Harvard alumni magazine

This is the obituary that ran in Harvard Magazine (the alumni magazine) in the July-August 2012 issue

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

We Need Photos for Josh's Memorial!

In order to collect pictures for Josh's memorial, Afsheen has setup an email address as well as an account on the (cloud-based) website "".

People can log in there and add pictures to the folder there or simply email them to

To use, use the following login ID & Password (at the time of writing this post, the "Log In" button is in the upper right hand corner of the website's front page).

Password: purpleyam Thanks in advance for your contributions!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

No one has ever been so nice to me

Once I learned that there were three basic nervous systems in mammals. The central and the peripheral (as if…) were the textbook two and the intestinal was the third. The big worms in our guts are known to respond to touch.  There was a time when it seemed insane to decompose an image into frequencies -- for better viewing. There was Josh running around the blackboard area of a classroom, holding a chair by its back, shoving it back and forth to demonstrate the differences in energy states between the airwaves entering the cochlea: the principle of decomposition.

This was the principle of observing the universe. There was a joy at seeing things. Only infinite curiosity can uncover some of their shapes. The joy of being there was all that Josh was about.  And he found pleasure of exposing (questioning) some of the mysteries of the universe to the lucky few.  

The end of this is just wrong.


There was Josh with his pointy wits.

I asked him once (can’t really remember why) where “exactly” was he from. New York New York so nice it has to be said twice. Put in my place, so many times in front of this joker, I looked around our little lab on top of Manhattan and that's all I could ever do.

Travel north a bit:

The house, most of it is a kitchen. Fresh fish and meat are on the outside and exotic spices from far away on the inside. That was his home. I saw him enjoying his wine when he said: Primoz, you know you can always come here. I looked up the hill where he had put some chairs just to overlook a lake below. It was getting darker and I felt that was the greatest little gift, the way he said it, I had ever got. No one has ever been so nice to me.

There was Josh, the blackboard full of plots. The theory of circadian rhythms by Josh: go to Asia, he would say and just walk in the sun at approximate time of your subjective midnight. The circadian clock would be unsure. Should I move back or should I move forth? So the clock would just reset. It actually works!! Try it.

In my mind I saw the lake, the house, the spices, the friends…  I see Josh in Brooklyn. I see him all around NY even when I’m not there. I have never felt so sad.

Primoz Ravbar
2 May 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Life Guided by Science and Birds.

I suppose it is natural for a neuroscientist to examine the reaction of his/her own mind when confronted with the harrowing loss of a close friend. In the present case, colleagues have noticed the fairly matter-of-fact way that I have responded so far to Josh’s passing. I am still waiting for the hammer to fall, perhaps because my “slow switch” makes me constitutionally less capable of an immediate grieving emotion. Alternatively, it is possible that the gradual approach of the inevitable demise of Josh over the final few months may have enabled the insertion of some protective steel. In what follows, I have related how my relationship to Josh grew out of our shared interest in birds and in our approach to try bringing science into life. Friends who read this commented that it emphasises the science at the expense of human feelings. But that is the way it came out of my brain, still confused about its response to this particular catastrophic loss.

Early Work on Avian Eye Movements:  My friendship and collaboration with Josh began more than 3 decades ago. Less pecunious than I had been in the US, I was looking for an inexpensive search coil system to record the eye movements of exotic Australian birds. Josh had heard about this somehow and at first suggested a DIY electronics solution. In the end, he decided to come “down under” so that he could help me personally with its construction. I never got around to asking him for his motivation in travelling so far to work with a stranger, but looking back I think that the attraction was the birds. I had just published my work on owls, so the prospect of working on avian binocular vision may also have been a factor.
We studied many bird species, implanting a stainless steel wire under the conjunctiva of both eyes using a modified aneurysm needle.  Perhaps the most remarkable bird was the Tawny Frogmouth, Podargus, which adopts a camouflage posture that is so effective that one can walk within a few feet without realising that the “broken branch” is actually this bird.

 Josh and I discovered that the camouflage posture is accompanied by a strikingly different visual mode, where the single binocular foveas are so widely divergent that there is a blind zone straight ahead! Aborigines took advantage of this to approach the perching bird unseen from straight ahead,…….. only to circle around if  being spied by the bird’s lateral gaze, …… eventually catching it by this repeated process. When a tame bird is tempted with a food item, a different mode is adopted. Both eyes swing forward so that both foveas now regard the morsel in front and there is significant binocular overlap.

The brain of the frogmouth is very owl-like, with a huge visual Wulst armed with stereo-enabling binocular neurons like the owl. This ancient owl-frogmouth link is supported by some wide-ranging molecular studies such as DNA-DNA hybridisation, although not by single gene phylogenies.   
Two Modes of Visual Behavior
In the Tawny Frogmouth, Podargus.

Josh’s search coil apparatus enabled the discovery of a binocular, 
frontal mode (upper) that is adopted when a tame bird is not alarmed 
and is presented with food:  the divergent, defensive visual mode
 (lower) is adopted along with the camouflage posture during a threat.
 In the latter posture, the divergence of the visual axes may be so
 great that there is a blind area straight ahead.

The binocular-frontal vs. divergent-defensive modes of visual behaviour recall the two systems conceived by Karten and Hodos from their work on avian visual pathways. We prefer to give their “thalamofugal system” a different name, the geniculostriate (because the tectofugal system also has a thalamic relay and because its forebrain destination in the Wulst is an obvious analogue of the mammalian striate cortex, even showing a “stria” in fibre stains). The geniculostriate system is the only sensory pathway to skip over the midbrain without a relay there, presumably because its binocular function would be compromised if there is too much prior processing of the monocular images before they are compared. The wiring of the tectofugal pathway (horizontal streak of highly specialised retino-tectal ganglion cells; input largely from the monocular fovea in those birds with two foveas; well-developed even in those birds lacking specialisation for binocular vision) is clearly designed for all eccentricities, not just the binocular field.

We never got around to checking the physiology to see if the tectofugal system (or part thereof) is turned off in some sense when the frogmouth is in binocular mode, and vice versa. It is a good bet that the geniculostriate system is turned off when the defensive, presumably tectofugal mode, is operative because binocular vision is an impossibility in that mode. The two systems have a problem with registration with each other, because the geniculostriate system has a hemifield representation compared with the whole field representation of the tectofugal system. This must cause some kind of clash, or rivalry, when the geniculostriate sends its massive projection back to the tectum. A neural switch between the two systems must therefore underly the striking switch in visual behaviour.

The frogmouth entertained Josh in the wild as well as in the lab. It also later earned Josh a front cover article in Nature (avian saccadic oscillations, see below).

The Chilean Connection:
Josh has had 3 brilliant Chilean PhD students over the years since 1982. I played a role in this, as I was in Santiago in 1981 and steered the first one toward Josh. He was a poet-scientist called Juan-Carlos Letelier. Having blazed the trail from Chile to Josh’s lab in NY, Juan-Carlos was followed by Gonzalo Marin and Ximena Rojas. They all came from a very creative school of biological thought that had been created by Humberto Maturana at the University of Chile. Maturana is perhaps best remembered for his co-authorship with Jerry Lettvin and others of “What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain”, but is also noted for his concept and widely translated book on “Autopoiesis” with the late Francisco Varela. Maturana is still very active, in his 70s, successfully treating pain in human sufferers using philosophy!

A vivid account of the way Maturana inspired students can be found at

Juan-Carlos and Gonzalo, along with Jorge Mpdozis, uncovered an extraordinary, high speed attentional system in the bird’s midbrain that is centred on the isthmi nuclei. As often happens when a discovery is made in the Southern Hemisphere, this finding has been taken up by some in the North without due credit being given to the originators. Josh and I worked in Santiago at the Maturana lab complex with the three Chileans. I think our experiment is worth a brief description because all our data were subsequently destroyed in a fire, along with all the other data and equipment in Maturana’s famous laboratory. 

The experiment was not too dissimilar to receptive field plotting, except that we were using single units to plot the path taken by an attentional spotlight, produced by the nuclei isthmi, as it moved over the surface of the tectum. The activation produced by the attentional spotlight has an oscillatory signature that is unmistakeable, both to one’s eye looking at the oscilloscope, and one’s ear listening to the speaker, when one is recording from a microelectrode. By placing a dozen microelectrodes over the tectal surface, we could observe their sequential activation by the “spotlight” and refer this to the equivalent spatio-temporal pattern of the spotlight in space. We had yet to define how, or even whether, the pattern might be affected by visual stimulation, but even without a visual stimulus, we could observe that the spotlight tended to start in the tectal area that corresponded to the fovea and then execute a rough spiral to activate increasingly peripheral retinal regions. This sequential pattern was repeated about 30 times/sec.

Another example of the creativity of the Chileans in the environment that Josh provided in NY was Ximena Rojas’ discovery that avian hair cells can regenerate, unlike their mammalian counterparts. Full credit must go to Ed Rubel for pursuing this important line of research, but I think that it is worth noting that the first observation may have taken place under Josh’s influence.

Saccadic Oscillations:
Perhaps the most bizarre phenomenon that Josh and I worked on, along with Chris Wildsoet, is the saccadic oscillation shown by all birds. During the jump, or saccade, from point A to point B, the eye movement of a bird oscillates rapidly around the rough optical axis of the eye. The frequency of the oscillation is a function of the eye size, with the tiny eye of a zebra finch oscillating at 60 Hz and the large eyes of nocturnal birds like owls and stone curlews oscillating at around 10 Hz. We put this uniquely avian feature together with another one, the avian pecten, a beautiful folded vascular structure that projects into the eye like a keel from the region of the optic nerve head. It is well known that the pecten provides the major nutrient supply and waste disposal for the inner avian retina, which lacks its own blood supply like the retinal circulation found in the more complex, thicker, mammalian retinas. If diffusion from the pecten is the main source of nutrients and the main exit for wastes, a significant problem would be the time taken for diffusion. In the large eyes of nocturnal birds, unassisted diffusion from the pecten to the edge of the retina would take many minutes. We reasoned that the oscillating pecten would act as a stirrer, like the rotor in a washing machine, to facilitate diffusion. The stirring would be helped by the fact that the posterior third of the avian vitreous is liquid, unlike the gel found further forward in birds and completely filling the vitreous of other vertebrates. The experiment we did was simple……fluorescein angiography……and had a striking result. Fluorescein accumulated around the base of the pecten between saccades, but was distributed across the whole retina during the oscillations of a saccade. The frogmouth was crucial for our success because it suppressed saccades for long periods when it was in its defensive mode, a behaviour that had presumably been selected to reduce the conspicuity of its large yellow irises when under threat in the camouflage posture. In chickens we found that the intersaccadic interval was too brief to see clearly what happens to the fluorescein between saccades.

Hans Ussing was the living expert in biological diffusion processes and invented the famous Ussing chamber. When he visited and heard our story about saccadic oscillations, he laughed in astonishment. “Only evolution can have invented such a bizarre solution to a problem, but I believe that you are right in your interpretation”.
Nature shared a similar viewpoint to Ussing and published the study, along with a front cover.

Avian Model of Myopia:
If one uses as a guide the difficulty we experienced in getting Australian grant support for working on myopia in chickens, Josh’s greatest accomplishment must be the wide acceptance of his avian model system for studying myopia. The rapid growth of the chick eye means that one can gather data on the control of eye growth in weeks, as opposed to the years required to acquire similar data in primates. The significance of the problem is brought home by the fact that virtually every adolescent in Singapore and Hong Kong has myopia. A fundamental understanding of this excessive eye growth phenomenon is a key to any progress in prevention.  Josh deserves full credit for having provided the superior avian model system that offers the best hope of providing fundamental knowledge that could underpin a preventative strategy.
            One significant advance made by Josh in this area was the realisation that the eye itself is capable of regulating its own growth locally, without any intervention from outside influences, such as the brain. There was an Aussie connection here, as Chris Wildsoet and I were interacting with Josh at the time. Teams in both countries carried out different experiments showing that eye growth control was local. We showed that excessive eye growth continued apace, even when the optic nerve was sectioned. At the same time Josh and team showed that excessive growth could be produced in a localised area of the eye if patterned vision was prevented there……. but growth was normal in the same eye in the region with patterned visual input. The discovery of local growth control marked a turning point in the field, which is presently waiting for another such turning point, one that will doubtless be delayed by Josh’s passing.
Rock Art In the Kimberley:
Bradshaw paintings are restricted to sheltered walls of Kimberley sandstone in NW Australia and have a delicate technique that betrays a precise observation of the natural world, as well as the ability to depict it. While on an expedition to the Kimberley with Father Anscar MacPhee and Marilyn Nugent, Josh and I discovered a depiction of small megabats of a species that is not presently found in Australia. None of the 7 extant megabat species in Australia has a white stripe on its face like those in the clear rock art depictions. This kind of rock art is controversial because it is not clear who was responsible, nor when, although there is little doubt that they are very old, from the Pleistocene. I now devote myself full-time to the study of this rock art and have had numerous fruitful conversations with Josh, whose open and brilliant mind always helped my investigations to progress.

Josh as experimentalist in life and lab:
I have gone into a lot of detail about the experiments that I shared with Josh because they are important parts of my memory. We both had a great love of birds that helped to ignite our efforts in the lab, but this was a source of joy and solace for both of us in the wild as well. We were both “slow switchers” who sometimes suffered from the moody blues, although I was more likely to switch the other way, toward mania. Josh had found a number of solutions for the blues, of which “neophilia” was paramount. He would seek out some completely new activity, challenging if possible. Travel to an exotic location often featured. Both of us could be lifted by wild birds, so the combination of a new avian, and a new exotic, experience was especially therapeutic. I can remember occasions where I received from Josh an email photo of some unusual bird he had taken in an unusual location, like the batrachostomid frogmouth from Malaysia. This was a distant relative of the much larger Australian frogmouth, Podargus, that was so important for the success of our early experiments together. One might say that our connection to birds was a spiritual one which may offset the matter-of-fact nature of this piece.

Jack Pettigrew

Emeritus Professor JD Pettigrew FRS
Queensland Brain Institute

26 April 2012


I don't know much about Prof. Wallman

I don't know much about Prof. Wallman. When I knew him I was reading his review "Homeostasis of eye growth and the question of myopia" and when I saw him he was giving a lecture about "Emmetropization: How does the eye distinguish myopic from hyperopic defocus?" When I had chance to sit beside him he was always asked questions by other students; when I finally nipped in with a question which I thought it's a question he answered me "it doesn't matter"……Then I met him again in ARVO, and he was walking to me when I was standing in front of my poster, I was nervous when he was reading my poster, though his question was answered uncertainly he gave me a certain smile;…….  That's I know about Josh.
Liqin Jiang
26 April 2012

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Josh's dedication to his students was unmatched

I remember sitting in Dr. Wallman's Neuroscience I classroom thinking how lucky I was to have so much fun learning. Dr. Wallman's enthusiasms for neuroscience was truly contagious, and his dedication to the students unmatched. I am forever grateful to have met somebody so inspiring early in my studies. He'll be missed by all his students.

Marina Shpaner
10 April 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

Josh had some of the best ideas

Josh collaborated with a lab in Seattle where I worked and I saw him occasionally there and at the SfN meetings.  He had some of the best ideas and cleverest, most concrete demonstrations I have ever seen.  Still, I think of Josh the most for the reliable delight I felt in just talking to him.  I had one memorable evening with Josh as we and others cooked together.  In total I have talked to him probably 20-30 times.  Within 15 seconds of every one of those meetings, every one, Josh had me laughing and we’d crack wise with each other for as long as we cared to.  I ran into Josh several times at the SfN meeting in DC last November and, though Josh did not look well, nothing had changed about his manner.  We had our usual great time just gabbing.  I am not surprised to see from this site that I am far from the only one with this experience.  So I take my hat off to Josh.  At every opportunity he had, he made my life significantly better.  I should do half as well. 

Ric Robinson
2 April 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I remember Josh editing some papers with me

As I start writing this, I get a remembrance of Josh editing some papers with me. We worked on a couple of publications and his revisions were always so elegantly crafted. He was a very good scientific writer. Of course, this was just a manifestation of his special mental capacity for parsing out problems, details, and information in scientifically meaningful ways. Clearly he possessed special talents that benefited his work and career.

I walked into Josh’s 7th floor lab in 1979. He gave me my first job out of college. He had just secured a large research grant and I was one of his first research assistants. It quickly became evident that one doesn’t work for Josh, one works with Josh. He had an irresistibly collaborative nature and treated almost everyone as a colleague. This brought many researchers into the Lab from all over the world for either casual visits or special projects.

The Lab that Josh nurtured brought to life many of the things he believed in: fairness, excellence, devotion, community, and joy.

Actually, he also made it a full life for many of us. What a fun place it was, and sometimes 24/7. The place was always active with several lines of oculomotor and accommodation research, grad students, and visitors. Often we would congregate around the table and make exotic lunches or dinners with delicacies that Josh brought from some gourmet shop he happened to have been passing by. (If not that, then we would wind up at some off the beaten path restaurant, or at his Brewster place.)  I can still see him entering the Lab in the morning - plop goes the briefcase full of articles, a quickly brewed a pot of Bustelo coffee, then straight to briefing us on his latest experiment ideas.

Josh, I think, never liked parting with people. After six years at the Lab, I sought opportunities in industry. Research work is never really done, and I think I let him down. I don’t know if he ever forgave me, but we would catch up every now and then and he was, as usual, very warm and receptive. Truth is, Josh was a very significant part of my life. I always hope that some of the skill and acumen that he shared with me has stayed with me. To this day, he remains the most intelligent and interesting individual I have had the pleasure to work with. Goodbye Josh and thank you.

Jose Velez
Boston, MA
March 29, 2012