Joe Palca

I met Bruce in the fall of 1977 when I started grad school at UCSC. I’d come to Santa Cruz to work with Ralph Berger, a sleep researcher I’d admired. The human sleep lab was in the basement of Kerr Hall, right next door to Bruce’s lab.

Prior to grad school, I had worked as a lab technician in a research institute. I learned that some researchers were not at all generous when it came to sharing resources or ideas with their neighbors. Bruce was the opposite. Always helpful, always generous with his time and his equipment. He epitomized the way science should work.

In winter quarter of my first year, I was a TA in Bruce’s course on physiological psychology. I loved that class, and I loved being Bruce’s TA. Even though he was a lofty professor and I a lowly grad student, he treated me like an equal. At one point in his class, we covered the topic of the function of micro-saccades. These are tiny eye movements that occur all the time, but nobody knew what they were for. One explanation was that they might be providing slightly different perspectives on a visual scene that might help the brain construct a more detailed scene when we need to do very precise tasks like thread a needle. I liked this explanation, but there was a problem with it. If it were right, the number of micro-saccades should go up as a subject performed the task of threading a needle…but a group of researchers had tested this, and they found the number went down, not up.

I wasn’t quite ready to give up on this hypothesis, so I told Bruce there might be a flaw in this group’s methodology. Maybe the physical act of threading the needle was suppressing all other muscular activity, including the tiny eye movements. If the subjects had merely been asked to watch a thread heading for a needle and decide if would go through the eye or not … without having to actually manipulate the thread themselves…. maybe the number of micro-saccades would go up.

To my total surprise, Bruce said, “let’s do the experiment.” So here I was, a first year grad student collaborating on a scientific paper. Bruce even offered to make me first author. I was impressed then, but even more impressed subsequently as I learned that not every mentor was as generous with his time as Bruce was, or as willing to share credit.

By the way, my idea was wrong. The number of micro-saccades still went down even though our subjects didn’t have to do anything but sit there and watch. But the paper made it into a top tier journal, and it still gets cited.

In the years since 1982 when I graduated, Bruce and I kept in touch. I was pleased that he embraced my decision to leave academic science, another quality that sets Bruce apart from many other mentors.

I feel privileged to be counted among the people he called friends. I’ll miss him a lot.