Laboratorio de Investigaciones Sensoriales (LIS)
*** REMEMBERING S. S. STEVENS. THE MAN, THE TEACHER, THE PSYCHOPHYSICIST
Laboratorio de Investigaciones Sensoriales (LIS) CONICET
Departamento de Neurociencias. Hospital de Clinicas UBA. Buenos Aires.
I am honored to participate in this roundtable, because I had the great privilege of working with Smitty. I am grateful for the opportunity to remember him as a friend, an educator and a scientist, giving particular emphasis to different facets of his personality.
I formed a friendship with Smitty and his wife Didi. I lived in their house at 70 Francis Avenue in Cambridge, Mass., where I could see that he was committed to psychophysical research not only as a career, but as a way of life. Even outside the laboratory, he seemed to think of things in terms of experiments.
I must say, he was not an easy person to approach; you couldn't call him either affable or ever courteous. Yet you could see that behind that air of severity, there lurked a compassionate and generous human being. Far from being pompous or arrogant, he was a naturally modest and frugal man.
He said of himself that he was shy and a man of few words. Probably sad early experiences in his life shaped his character. He mentions in his autobiography; Notes for a Life Story S. S. Stevens 1974, that he lost his parents when he was still a teenager. He also recalls that later, as a college student and afterwards, he faced a number of academic and economic setbacks; but he handled adversity with calm and aplomb, overcoming obstacles large and small with seeming unconcern. In his Notes he said. "Work seemed the only road to relief". I admired this capacity for work; he could stay at the Laboratory all day and into the night.
I often took part in ski trips with him and Didi, who were both enthusiastic skiers, and welcomed many friends and foreign visitors to their farmhouse in New Hampshire. I was once even a subject in one of his experiments to prove the advantage of short skis. He himself had made a pair for me based on my height.
One noteworthy thing about him was that you couldn't be around him and not learn from him; he was an amazing teacher. No matter what we talked about, he could find the science in it and use it as an example we could understand. He was always able to translate complicated or difficult material into easily understandable terms. And yet, he avoided teaching class as much as he could. He wrote in his Notes that "deans count you at work only when you stand before a group with your mouth moving".
In one of my first meetings in his office he showed me how to obtain a power function, asking me to assign numbers to the length of lines he drew on the blackboard. We started a not very friendly philosophical debate on whether it is possible to measure sensations of length, time, space and other abstract attributes. That was the first of many debates, which I suspect may have been responsible for my being allowed to stay in his Laboratory, and later become his friend. I endorse what he wrote about his arguments with his teacher E. G. Boring "You gained nothing with him by abandoning the field of battle" (Edwin Garages Boring, S. S. Stevens. 1968).
Later he asked me to measure loudness, a non-abstract attribute. He said that I needed to build "some potentiometer" with a range of attenuation large enough for scaling pure tones. I told him that I came from the humanities and did not even know how to connect a cable. He bellowed back that he also came from the humanities and had to learn how to build his own equipment, and showed me the way to the machine shop where I could find the tools and technical handbooks. After I learned how to connect and calibrate five pots in cascade I started my first experiment in psychophysics! It was my first paper with him. (Stevens, S. S. and Guirao, M. Loudness, reciprocality and partition scales. JASA, 34:1466-1471, 1962).
He wrote in a clear didactic style and approached scientific issues with amazing simplicity. He had an extraordinary ability to take a fresh look at a problem, often seeing something important in what other people considered merely obvious.
He believed that writing and editing were the best way of teaching. An example is the Handbook of Experimental Psychology (1953) (followed by a second edition with the title S. S. Stevens´s Handbook of Experimental Psychology), still an inexhaustible reference source that has been translated into many languages. In the book Hearing, co-authored with Davis, (1983) he presented his findings in many aspects of the auditory sensation as a result of intense labor in his Laboratory of Psychoacoustics. His last book Psychophysics (1973) sums up the pioneering work he conducted over four decades, and continues to bear fruit in today's research.
As to his scientific work itself, I would like to point up three facets I admired in his personality: his double character of skilful technician and theoretical thinker and his intellectual versatility.
Much has been said about Stevens the scientist. But it would be easy to overlook Smitty’s commitment to the practical, applied problems dealt with in psychophysics. He believed that when scientists confront problems, their observations, first and foremost, are selectively designed to test whether the new findings could have a practical application in our personal and social lives. With this view he could easily blend theory and praxis.
An example of the applied side of his work is his contribution to the problem of noise control. He provided the method for measuring the effects of noise on loudness. His procedures Mark VI and VII to calculate the perceived level of loudness and noisiness have been published in successive numbers of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and in various technical journals abroad, and were adopted as international standards (ISO 1966) and served as the background for building of sound level meters widely used by electro acoustical engineers.
Smitty was a philosophically gifted scientist. Even today, among philosophers he is recognized for bringing contemporary empirical philosophy of science to psychology. In fact, he made an important contribution in this field. In 1939 he published an extended paper 'Psychology and the Science of Science', Psychological Bulletin where he discusses the adoption and adaptation of operationism by behavioristic psychologists. In Smitty´s view science consists largely of problem solving. In several of his early writings he advanced the theories that later were framed in his experiments. Related to this was his constant interest in the problem of measurement of invariance. He wrote "The scientist is usually looking for invariance whether he knows it or not". (Mathematics, Measurement and Psychophysics, Chapter 1, Handbook of Experimental Psychology, J. Wiley & Sons, New York, 1951).
He was by nature a trandisciplinary, holistic thinker with an unbounded scientific curiosity. He broke into different fields offering psychophysical methods and other contributions that enriched chapters of such varied disciplines as neurology, physiology, mathematics, physics, sociology, anthropology and even economics.
He spread his ideas and findings over more than a hundred and thirty papers published in journals specializing not only in different branches of psychology but also in all sorts of other areas of knowledge.
Stevens´s power law, his most fundamental contribution to psychophysics, spawned hundred of experiments on more than forty different sensory attributes. It also broke through the frontiers of Psychology, providing the foundation for many applications in Physiology and Social Sciences. This was because he recognized that many of the problems he was facing to could only be solved by interdisciplinary work. At the Laboratory he was flanked by professionals of different academic backgrounds and sought to establish a common language.
His students and collaborators will always remember Smitty, as a loyal friend and as generous and wise teacher. As a scientist, he left us a legacy. He is the refounder of Psychophysics and his name is already in the Annals of the classics scientists.