Sunday, September 02, 2018

Visiting Horace Barlow.

I was getting a little worried. Horace had been always quick in his e-mail correspondences. However, after exchanging a few emails about my U.K. visit, the answers did not arrive. Then one day, Miranda sent me an SMS, saying that Horace was in good health.
Once in the U.K., I sent Miranda an SMS. She said in response that it was fine to meet with Horace on Thursday. I wrote perhaps I should go to the house, considering Horace’s health. Miranda said Horace suggested Trinity.
Miranda wrote that I should ring Horace once I was in the Porter’s Lodge, informing that I was on my way to the Parlour. Arriving at the Great Gate, I realized that there were some ambiguities in what was meant by Miranda’s message. I called Horace’s mobile number, which had been used by Miranda to exchange SMS. There was no answer.
A kind porter escorted me, trying to find where Horace was. The Parlour was being refurbished, so there was another room functioning temporarily as the Parlour. On the way, the porter and I carried on with some conversations.
“Do you know Professor Barlow for a long time?”
“Yes, I did postdoc with him some years ago.”
“Have you been to Trinity recently?”
“Well, a few years ago.”
“I think Professor Barlow might be here.”
The porter led me into a room, where several people were seated. Some of them were reading the papers. The porter cleared his throat, and asked “Has anybody seen Professor Barlow?” A gentleman with spectacles looked up, and said “I haven’t seen Horace for a while.”
The porter said he would ask if somebody had seen Professor Barlow’s car. I tried Horace’s mobile again, and this time, Miranda answered.
“Hi, Ken, Horace was a bit late driving to Trinity. He should be there in a few minutes.”
At about the same time, the porter received through his wireless communication devise the information that somebody had seen Horace’s car. Brightening up, the porter led me into the green square between the dining room and the river. “Professor Barlow should be coming this way,” said the porter.
The moment I saw Horace walking into the green square, I was relieved. He was apparently in good health. His walking was slow, but his face was vividly smiling as ever.
“Hello Horace,” I said.
“Hello Ken,” Horace said, and we shook hands.
Horace led me into the dining room. 
I saw several familiar faces around the high table. Among them were professors Brian Josephson and Martin Rees.
It was Horace’s kind manners to read out what was available on the menu. We both had soup, and then Horace had a crab. I had some salad.
As we sat at the table, and Horace introduced me to professor Ian Glynn, and we exchanged a few words. Professor Glynn mentioned his visit to some colleagues in Japan with warm words. Horace was fond of the apple juice in a nicely designed bottle. He had several glassfuls, and I helped pour the juice into his glass.
It was the manner of Horace to go straight into scientific conversations. He was of the opinion that the exploration of redundancy was very important in understanding the cellular functions in the visual cortex, a view still underappreciated, in Horace’s opinion. We discussed some issues about artificial and natural intelligence. When we were finished, Horace suggested coffee. As the Parlour was closed for the moment, Horace suggested we go to his house to have coffee.
It was inspiring to see a 96 years old person drive a car (Horace was born on 8thDecember 1921). As we went over the river, Horace mentioned a sculpture by Antony Gormley recently installed in Trinity. “Pop out and see it!” said Horace. I popped out and saw the figure, which, according to Horace, was representing Isaac Newton admiring the Wren library.
Once on the road, Horace drove the car very smoothly. “You seem to be driving without any problems” I mentioned. “Well,” said Horace, “I feel much safer in the car.” Then Horace went on, jokingly, “I think I am much safer to other people while in the car, too.”
We arrived at his house. I could already hear the dog barking. I had seen the dog before, but forgot the name. It carried a tag around the neck. However, since the dog was barking, it was difficult to see the name.
Horace told me how to make the coffee. I ground the beans accordingly. Horace then took the spoon and cleared the powder into the coffee filter. The meticulous and careful way Horace used the spoon to put every bit of powder into the filter reminded me of the fact that Horace did physiological experiments in his youth.
Once, when I was having a chat with Horace in the laboratory, I asked Horace why he was not doing experiments any more. Horace laughed and said, “that’s because I have to sleep at night now.”
The coffee was made, and we sat on the table. Miranda came in, and we said hello. Miranda told Horace that she would take the dog for a walk. It was such a fine day. The dog stopped barking.
When Miranda was gone, we sat at the table. Horace said he should have made the coffee stronger. I felt it was just fine. Talking with Horace over the coffee in his house, it was like the old tea time was coming back again.
When I was doing postdoc in Horace’s lab, it was customary to go to the Physiology tea room in the morning and the afternoon. It would be at those times that Horace said things really interesting, some of which I remember to this day.
Horace’s strong intuition about the brain’s central function always impressed me, and the impression was renewed. The relevance of Horace’s belief that the job of the brain was to detect possible coincidences in the environment would go beyond the visual and sensory cortex, and would have possible contributions to the general computational principles of the cortex. The conversation shifted towards intelligence again. Horace said that the “is” questions, such as “what is intelligence,” were not very helpful. Horace suggested that we should instead ask what were the things that intelligence made it possible for the brain to perform. Horace remained silent for a few seconds, and then started to speak. There was a twinkle in his eye. 
“I suppose intelligence makes it possible to carry out intelligent conversations. Without intelligence, we cannot discuss things of interest in such a way!”
We were finished with the coffee. As I stood up, there was a mixture of joy, relief, and a deep sense of inspiration in my heart.
“I hope to see you again soon,” I said to Horace, and shook hands.
“I hope to see you, Ken”, said Horace.
As I stepped into the bright evening air, my steps were light. The sun would not set yet for quite a while. 
It was still summer.