Reminiscences of Professor Ross Day
Robert P. O’Shea
20 Dec 2018
In these reminiscences, I talk first about my experiences of Ross Day, tell three stories about him that I have told to many other people, and give some concluding thoughts.
Ross and me
My experiences of Ross Day are mainly from various Experimental Psychology Conferences (EPCs), beginning with the first in 1974. Ross attended every one for at least 38 years. I enjoyed meeting Ross at the (fewer!) conferences I attended. He was always very kind in his public questions to me.
I always attended Ross’s talks, because they were entertaining, erudite, and interesting. And anyone who gave a talk with Ross was in the audience was almost guaranteed to get a clever, entertaining, erudite question.
At one of those conferences, I arrived early enough to attend a pre-conference gathering of other early arrivers, in some common room of the college in which we were staying. Ross was there and initially was uncharacteristically quiet. But over the next few hours he became more and more entertaining, approaching the level of wit, intensity, and erudition he usually displayed and that he reached once that conference started. I realised that Ross needed to build up to the impressive level of his public persona.
In 2004 I organised the 31st EPC in Dunedin—the first to be held outside Australia. As always, Ross attended. He participated enthusiastically in the Haggis ceremony at the conference dinner (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Ross Day (third from left) participating in the Haggis ceremony at the 2004 EPC dinner at Larnarch Castle in Dunedin, New Zealand. The other participants are, from left to right, Barb Gillam, the MC, and Mike Corballis. (Photograph by Donovan Govan. Copyright 2004.)
I was surprised Ross missed the 2012 and 2013 EPCs I attended, especially because the 2013 was the 40th. I learned later that he was taking care of his wife, Grecian. I regret I did not have more contact with him after that, and I regret that I have only three other stories to tell of Ross:
Professor Ross Poggendorf about the Day illusion
I first met Ross Day at the 1974 EPC. That inaugural conference was at Monash University; I was in my first year of my PhD; the EPC was my first conference. My colleagues from Queensland, my supervisor, Ray Over, and another of Ray’s students, Boris Crassini, were clearly in awe of Ross.
The story I want to tell from that conference is Ross’s response to Ray’s introducing Ross’s talk on the Poggendorf illusion this way:
“Now we will hear from Professor Ross Poggendorf about the Day illusion.”
This received a round of laughter from the audience. Ross, with no rehearsal whatsoever, said:
“Thank you Professor Ray Blakemore.”
This got a bigger laugh.
Ross’s bright eyes
I had already blogged about this reminiscence:
I also retold this story in my after-dinner speech at the 40th Experimental Psychology Conference in Adelaide.
Here it is:
At one of the Experimental Psychology Conferences, in the late 1970s, Ed Howell gave a talk describing his research, with, if memory serves, Lorrin Riggs and others, into why we do not see the visual world move when we make a saccadic eye movement. To exclude all possible alternative explanations, Howell conducted the experiment in complete darkness. The only light was that from a bulb pushed up the nose of the observer (probably another of the experimenters) so it delivered a brief flash to the back of the orbit—one of the more heroic experiments on visual perception. Howell et al. found that the flash needed to be considerably brighter to be seen during a saccadic eye movement than when the eyes were stationary. They concluded that vision during the saccade is suppressed somehow.
Ross Day asked Howell a question along these lines:
Every morning while I am shaving, I look in the mirror at one of my eyes and then at the other and try to see my eyes move. I never can. Are you telling me that my eyes are just not bright enough in the morning?
Howell was nonplussed by this question, perhaps because the audience members were laughing. Eventually, and rather tentatively, he said, “Yes?”.
Ross embraces PowerPoint
Ross was suspicious of computer technology, preferring to conduct his experiments on geometrical optical illusions with real stimuli, made with pen and ink or with stick-on lines, on cardboard, rather than with stimuli made by a computer and shown on a monitor. His suspicion extended to spurning PowerPoint in talks in favour of slides or transparencies.
I rather agreed with using low technology for talks, having witnessed the disaster that unfolded when one of Ross’s academic children, Peter Wenderoth, had his PowerPoint presentation fail to start for about 10 minutes at some EPC.
So it was with great surprise that at the 2001 EPC, Ross Day began his presentation with PowerPoint. Everything went well until he got to the critical slides, which were supposed to show the Poggendorf illusion with a spray of fine lines emanating from where one of the obliques met one of the parallels and crossing to the other parallel. This is what Ross could see on his computer screen, but it was not what audience members could see, which was that the fine lines were completely absent. Ross had been undone, not by PowerPoint, but by the computer projector. Ross barely skipped a beat, invited us to imagine the lines—they were imaginary anyway, and went on with his talk.
I will miss Ross. He was a great character. He used his personal charm, authority, and energy to shape psychology in Australia into a scientific discipline. Any benefits we enjoy from our association with psychology are partly due to his hard work.