Jan 172015

 Timothy Hubbard

John C. (“Jack”) Baird received his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in 1960 and his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1964. He served as a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College from 1967 until he retired in 2000, and from 2000 until his death served as an Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Jack was one of the founding members of the International Society for Psychophysics in 1985, and he participated in and contributed to the success of the society during the early years. In his long career, he had a significant impact through his own research and through his influences on colleagues and students.

Jack viewed the world with a psychophysical eye, and his curiosity was wide-ranging. For Jack, psychophysics was not something apart from the world of everyday life; rather, psychophysics reflected and informed the world of everyday life. A short list of his interests and the areas in which he made significant empirical and theoretical contributions includes geometries of visual space, sequence effects, properties of magnitude estimation, the moon illusion, environmental memory, pattern recognition, imagery, memory psychophysics, and medical psychophysics. Early in his career he focused more on basic issues (e.g., the use of numbers in scaling, cognitive effects on spatial representation). Later in his career he focused more on applied issues (and founded Psychological Applications, LLC), often using psychophysics to assess and improve the quality of life (developing more accurate assessments for pain, breathlessness, and the effectiveness of hearing aids; assessment of environmental quality [e.g., “sick buildings”]).

Jack combined the empirical and the theoretical in his scientific work. He was not afraid to “think big”, and he was equally highly adept in dealing with the smallest methodological details, the largest theoretical implications, and in developing simulations and models of potential mechanisms. He embraced new technologies whenever they could aid his scientific curiosity, but his scholarly activity was always driven by the asking of fundamental questions rather than by fads or gadgetry. He published over 150 empirical and theoretical articles in peer-reviewed journals, and he published five books including Psychophysical Analysis of Visual Space (1970), Fundamentals of Scaling and Psychophysics (1978, with Eliot Noma), Mind, Child, Architecture (1982, with Anthony D. Lutkus), The Inner Limits of Outer Space (1987), and Sensation and Judgment: Complementarity Theory of Psychophysics (1997).

Jack was more than a brilliant scientist; he was also a generous and giving teacher. He mentored many undergraduates, graduates, and postdocs, and I feel fortunate to have had Jack as my graduate advisor. His mentoring style was Socratic and idiosyncratic, but also very effective. For example, Jack would often take an afternoon break in which he would walk across campus for coffee, and he often asked me to accompany him on those “spontaneous” breaks. It was during such breaks that much of our research was designed. Indeed, the broad outlines of my dissertation research were designed while we skipped stones off Occam pond on the Dartmouth campus during such a break. Jack lived the idea of “pay it forward” before that idea became a cliché, and after an act of kindness, he would just say “do the same thing for your students someday…”. I’ve tried to take his example to heart and to be the type of scientist, mentor, and teacher he best exemplified.

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