March 9 2011, 5:10 AM  by rick tyrrell


Welcome to this tribute to Hersh Leibowitz. Please share your thoughts, memories, and stories of Hersh by adding a comment to the bottom of this page. How did Hersh affect you? What’s your most salient memory of him? Your favorite Hersh story or punchline? How did he influence your approach to your work? You do not need to register with the website in order to leave a comment, but please consider entering your name. All comments will be public.

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Many thanks, Rick Tyrrell (


Scholar, educator, and philanthropist Herschel W. Leibowitz died on February 13, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania at the age of 85. Leibowitz was widely recognized for his research in visual perception and for his approach to conducting research that both advanced theory and helped in the understanding and relief of societal problems.

Leibowitz’s research investigated basic issues of visual psychophysics, perception of size, distance, and motion, peripheral vision, and oculomotor functioning. He also studied problems of aviation, traffic safety, motion sickness, postural instability (especially during stair descent), and the effects of stress on perception. Indeed, one of the striking characteristics of Leibowitz’s research was his symbiotic view of “basic” and “applied” science. In the early 1970s, for example, Leibowitz’s lab developed the laser optometer and used it to advance our basic understanding of the eyes’ focusing behavior (visual accommodation); these “basic” experiments simultaneously addressed real-world difficulties such as night myopia and visual fatigue. He also connected advances in visual psychophysics and neuroscience with a wide range of matters in health science, national defense, child development, and transportation safety. He proposed that the hazards of night driving, for example, can be better understood through the neurological concept of two visual systems, explaining drivers’ over-confidence at night as resulting from sustained efficiency of visual guidance combined with selective degradation of focal recognition abilities. In general, Leibowitz enjoyed bringing into the laboratory the visual challenges that are routinely faced by people in highly demanding situations.

Leibowitz was also a tireless advocate for psychological science. He frequently organized and served on review panels for the NRC, NSF, NIH, NIMH, the DoD, and the U.S. Olympic Committee (among many others), and he served on the editorial boards of numerous scientific journals. Once when offering testimony to a Congressional committee, Leibowitz pointed out that the military was investing less annually in human factors research than the cost of a single aviation mishap despite the fact that the military was blaming many such mishaps on human error.

A defining characteristic of Leibowitz’s approach to science was his enthusiasm for cultivating the development of younger scientists. He encouraged his graduate students to indulge their curiosity (“study what bugs you!”), while always insisting on attention to his favorite question “Why is that important?” Leibowitz loved inter-disciplinary collaboration and he built productive friendships with colleagues in fields ranging from anthropology to zoology, including athletics, biomechanics, health science, law, physiology, and physics. His extended family of former graduate students and colleagues gathered in State College on several occasions for LeiboFest celebrations of science, friendship, and mentorship. The book “Visual Perception: The Influence of H.W. Leibowitz” was written by his students and close colleagues in 2003; the book contains pearls of wisdom that continue to prove useful.

Leibowitz’ early studies at University of Pennsylvania were interrupted by World War II, and he was a Private during the Battle of the Bulge. He later earned his M.A. and his Ph.D. from Columbia University under the guidance of Clarence Graham. Leibowitz’ dissertation explored the effect of pupil size on visual acuity for photometrically matched stimuli. He began his career as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin (1951-1960). Following two years as manager of behavioral research at IBM, Leibowitz returned to academia in 1962 as a member of the Department of Psychology at Penn State University. He was named an Evan Pugh Professor in 1977. By the time of his retirement in 1995 Leibowitz had published more than 250 articles in scientific journals and had been recognized as one of the most influential researchers in perception (White, 1987, Big bangs in perception: the most often cited authors and publications, Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 25, 458-461).

Among his numerous honors, Leibowitz received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award for the Applications of Psychology (1994), the American Academy of Optometry’s Prentice Medal (1987), Pennsylvania Optometric Association’s Van Essen Award (1987), and honorary Doctor of Science from the State University of New York (1991). He launched distant collaborations with the support of fellowships from the Guggenheim (1957-58) and Alexander von Humboldt (1976-78) Foundations and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

In later years, Leibowitz also became an avid runner. Locals recall the lanky 6’ 5” Leibowitz loping across Penn State’s campus on cold winter days in his size-16 running shoes with socks on his hands instead of his feet. He claimed that he did his best thinking while running, and he ran a lot. Leibowitz was 50 when he completed the first of his 15 marathons.

For all that he accomplished, however, Leibowitz’s scientific and personal philosophies will often be distilled down to a single maxim known as “Leibowitz’ Law.” Linking neuroanatomy, psychophysics, and everyday experience, Leibowitz’s Law is illuminating for its simplicity, for its accuracy, for its implicit request to honor simple truths, and for reflecting Leibowitz’s unique sense of humor. Leibowitz’ Law states that “You can’t see a damn thing in the dark!” It is a telling sample of Leibowitz’s unique approach toward science, education, and friendship.

Herschel Leibowitz will be remembered for his energy, his generosity, his irrepressible sense of humor, and his tireless dedication to teaching, research, and public service.

4664 views and 20 responses

  • Mar 9 2011, 12:42 PM

Jane Raymond responded:

I did my post doc with Hersch in 1980-1983. He was a wonderful teacher, mentor and friend. He taught me to think broadly, connect my science with the world outside the lab and to develop a spirit of discovery. He was always telling us to “mess around” in the lab. His endless small jokes (“have a nice trip?”) made everything more fun. I can hear his voice in my head, still. My favourite memories were meeting him at 7am for breakfast meetings to write a paper or plan something new. He was so good to me. He made me believe in myself and that was the most valuable thing he could have given me. I have always felt that I owe my career to him because without his confidence in me I am sure I would have quit and done something entirely different with my life. I’ve loved being in science and it has given me a good life and I thank Hersh in many ways for that. I know Hersch loved his life in science too, and that he loved it for all the right reasons and for none of the wrong ones. He had a moral compass that garnered so much respect from me (and I think all who worked with him) and it was this that made him a great mentor. I am sad that he is gone but I feel so lucky to have fallen within his sphere for a short while.

  • Mar 9 2011, 1:14 PM

Walt Makous responded:

First impression: Hersh was assigned as my faculty advisor when I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, in 1955. He was the first professor I ever met in person. When I turned up at his office for my first conference with him, he had his huge feet on this desk, a fisherman’s hat on his head, and he was practicing fly-casting through the open window of his office. I’ve met many professors since then in many situations, but have yet to see an image to match that one.

Favorite joke: In France, one egg is an oeuf.

Hersh: Outstanding colleague, top notch scientist, a pleasure to work with, and a real mensch.

  • Mar 9 2011, 1:44 PM

Chris Johnson (Facebook) responded:

I was a graduate student with Hersh from 1971 to 1974. My only regret is that I finished my PhD in 3 years – it would have been nice to have spent more time with Hersh. Last year, I had the opportunity to go back to State College and see Hersh, Eileen and their son Michael. It was a wonderful, most memorable time. There’s not a day that goes by that I do not remind myself of Hersh’s pearls of wisdom. There are many and they are quite simple but profound. I will just indicate one of them. During my last year of graduate training, Hersh had received permission to have us graduate students be visitors to the National Academy of Sciences / National Research Council Committee on Vision. I was fretting because it meant I would miss classes for a week. Hersh said to me “What will be more important five years from now ?”. Grudgingly, I decided to go, and because of that I met a who’s who of vision scientists and clinicians, including my postdoctoral mentor Jay Enoch, got a tour of Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins from Louise Sloan, including a review of a museum of devices and equipment used by former researchers there, and had some wonderful conversations with attendees of the meeting. I remember this experience vividly, but I have no clue what class I was so worried about. As usual, Hersh was right – that trip was much more important five years later (and for the rest of my career as well). I can never hope to repay the debt of gratitude that I owe Hersh for getting me to see the big picture rather than sweating the small stuff, but I believe that it is up to all of us who knew him to continue his legacy and “pay it forward” by passing this along to young investigators and clinicians who are just beginning their careers.

In parting, I can only say to Hersh – “THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU” for believing in me (and getting me to believe in myself) and for being so patient with me. There are three things that I am deeply grateful for : (1) going to Penn State and working with Hersh and getting to know him, Eileen and their children, (2) not allowing home sickness to dominate my decisions to leave Penn State (at one point early in my graduate career, I had decided to go back to Oregon and attend Optometry School), and (3) continuing to interact with Hersh and all of his other former students, postdoctoral fellows and colleagues in the years after my graduate education.

  • Mar 9 2011, 4:24 PM

Keith White responded:

I met Hersh when I was an undergrad at Florida State (Tallahassee) about 1970. He came to visit my mentor, Howard Baker, who was also a Clarence Graham student. When I met Hersh he had somehow induced my girlfriend, who was Howard’s secretary, to do pushups on the floor of the office. I got to know Hersch better when, as a graduate student of Lorrin Riggs, he asked me often to review papers for Perception & Psychophysics. I spent a delightful 6 weeks with Hersch and Bob Post visiting Lothar Spielman in Freiburg, and we published a Science paper together when the dorsal/ventral streams idea was less than gospel. I wish I had followed his advice to publish many papers on this, but alas did not. I was always so happy to see Hersch at ARVO to get his approval as though he was my mentor. He was so; atbeit through no formal obligation. My life and my science were both enriched by knowing Hersch.

  • Mar 9 2011, 4:37 PM

Aries Arditi responded:

I only knew Herschel a little, but I’ve always been in awe of him and his massive yet humbly delivered contributions. And I must add that this is a beautifully crafted, eloquent, and fitting tribute.

  • Mar 9 2011, 7:12 PM

Maureen Powers responded:

Hersch and I served on grant review panels together, and he also visited Vanderbilt a few times while I was there. I loved his love of science and of life, and his ability to approach the practicalities of both so effectively. We ran together — it was like running with Velma Dobson whose legs were about as long as Hersch’s. Hersch was an inspiration for my recent transition from basic to applied science; I am not sure he ever knew I did that. I will always remember him with appreciation and gratitude.

  • Mar 9 2011, 7:43 PM

Ken Gish responded:

Hersh loved having as many students around as possible. When I was there between 1982 and 1987 he always had at least 5 graduate students around. Amazingly, we all played nice together – most of the time – despite all the usual pressures of graduate school. Unfortunately, having so many chickens in the coop made it hard to get Hersh’s attention.

In retrospect, that’s unfortunate, because there was so much more to learn about Hersh. Only now am I realizing how many people’s careers he influenced; people that I had no idea were connected to him.

Hopefully some of you have stories that shed light on Hersh’s early influences (as far back as his graduate student days at Columbia and his days at U. of Wisconsin) and anecdotes related to his research. I recently came across a paper by Lorrin Riggs about Clarence Graham, Hersh’s doctoral advisor. It was interesting to read about Graham because he was apparently very demanding (perfectionist) but also very caring, a lot like Hersh.

I look forward to reading more about Hersh.

  • Mar 10 2011, 2:25 AM

Michael Leibowitz responded:

I met Hersh in 1953 in Madison.

Our family is humbled amd so grateful for this forum. Your messages are comforting and will keep his legacy alive. We look forward to reading them.

Thank you to all, and especially to Rick for creating this web site.

  • Mar 10 2011, 5:37 AM

Richard Carlson (Facebook) responded:

I met Hersch when I arrived as a new assistant professor in 1985. I have many fond memories, including my first day in the office when he took me to the Creamery for my first Penn State ice cream cone. As we wandered around chatting and eating our cones, he stopped and asked “Do you know how to get back to the building? I’m not sure where we are.” I never did figure out whether or not he was kidding, but we did make it back. In my years as his next-office neighbor in the Moore Building, I heard many of his jokes – most of them many times! A kind man who will be greatly missed here.

  • Mar 10 2011, 8:19 AM

Dick Aslin responded:

Hersh was an amazing guy, well beyond his accomplishments as an academic. I met him as a grad student when I visited Penn State and he was studying a “blind sight” patient. Perhaps this was his attempt to understand the unconscious or just to put an oculomotor twist on spatial orientation. Every year at ARVO I’d see him jogging along the beach with those huge strides. Now that I no longer run I appreciate his persistence at that activity even more. But the most memorable interaction with Hersh was in Bielefeld where we attended a week-long conference and stayed a few extra days to sightsee. Hersh had spent a year in WWII in this same region of Germany and it was quite touching to see the amazement on his face when we came into a little village and he said “I was here 40 years ago”. Hersh was a giant in many ways, but witnessing his reactions to something my generation only reads about in history books was the thing that sticks in my mind as a different (and more profound) contribution to our society. On a less serious note, Hersh was a lively personality. We had a wonderful visit to a castle and a falconry outside Bielefeld with Fred Owens and his family and Hersh and his wife were the perfect surrogate grandparents to Fred and Debbie’s kids. He will be missed.

  • Mar 10 2011, 8:54 AM

Greg Lockhead responded:

I was a lowly, pre-graduate school, lab tech at IBM research when I met Hersh. But you would think I was a member of the National Academy by the way he treated me. Then I learned then to think about empty field myopia as well as the importance of light humor in communicating scientific ideas. I saw him off and on at meetings after that, and he never changed. He always spoke slowly and he always said something of value. A great role model.

  • Mar 10 2011, 1:48 PM

Janet Swim responded:

I received a warm welcome from Hersh upon my arrival at Penn State in 1988. He enjoyed teasing me about my last name. I also remember him giving a guest lecture in my Psychology and Law class where he provided some great material for the students on his work that he would use in courtroom testimonies. His humor helped contribute to a nice climate in the department.

  • Mar 10 2011, 2:14 PM

John Kihlstrom responded:

I read Hersch’s 1965 book as an undergraduate, and still have it on my shelf. I have fond memories of running with Hersch in the hills above the Center at Stanford, when he was in residence during the 1983-1984 academic year, and also running with him in the Bay to Breakers race that year.

Most of Hersch’s colleagues will not know that, in addition to his basic and applied research on visual perception, Hersch also took an interest in hypnosis, and did a number of lovely studies in the 1970 beginning in the late 1960s — often in collaboration with his Penn State colleague, Dick Lundy. For example, with Mike Parrish, he and Lundy studied the effect of hypnotic age regression on perception of the Ponzo and Poggendorff illusions. He also looked at the effect of hypnotic suggestions on visual acuity.

My favorites of Hersch’s hypnosis studies explored the effect of hypnotically “ablating” some aspect of a scene, to see the effects on what we would now call perceptual (or percept-percept) couplings. For example, selective blindness for the background radiating lines had no effect on the Ponzo illusion; ablation of the surround had no effect on the perception of slant in a target line; and ablation of the surround affected the perception of the size of the center in the Titchener-Ebbinghaus illusion. Suggestions for tubular blindness did not abolish the size-distance rule. And, in my favorite experiment of this type, suggestions for tubular blindness had no effect on illusory feelings of egomotion (roll vection) induced by a rotating stimulus. In all of these studies, Hersch approached the phenomenon with openness — openness both to the subjects’ subjective reports of their experiences, and just a general eagerness to “see what happens”. I discussed some of these findings in my 1992 paper on “Implicit Perception”.

  • Mar 11 2011, 8:54 AM

Bob Stern responded:

I first met Hersh in 1965 when I came to Penn State for my job interview. While the rest of the faculty plied me with questions about my research, Hersh took me to see the new handball courts in Rec Hall. That convinced me to come to Penn State, but try as a might I never did manage to beat him at handball. Hersh was a wonderful role model for me after I joined the Penn State faculty, helping to erase the dust bowl empiricism model with which I had been indoctrinated during my graduate student days at Indiana University. After a short time I came to totally embrace Hersh’s model of the interaction of basic and applied research. To help me with my work on motion sickness, Hersh “loaned” me an optokinetic drum that I think was built by Bob Post when he was one of Hersh’s graduate students. He had noticed that if he left subjects in the drum for too long, some reported symptoms of motion sickness. The drum turned out to be very important to my research and provided the stimulus for 20-30 studies in my lab including one with Hersh. He and I remained good friends even during the ten years when I was department head.
As others have commented, he loved to tell jokes, and sometimes we enjoyed playing jokes on him. Sometimes at dinner, when I would tell my family a funny story, one of them was sure to say, “Oh, you must have seen Hersh today.”
Not many realize that Hersh held a special Penn State presidential appointment at a time when the University president wanted to quickly improve the reputation of the psychology department. In retrospect, he was an outstanding choice because he was an excellent and productive researcher, a wonderful teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students, and functioned as a significant role model for me and many faculty members who came after him.

  • Mar 14 2011, 10:43 AM

rick tyrrell responded:

I arrived in Hersh’s lab in 1987 and ended up being his second-to-last PhD graduate. Hersh taught me how to be a psychologist but he also taught me so much more. In fact it’s only now that I have PhD students of my own that I appreciate just how much Hersh invested in his students. I can only repay him by working hard and by passing Hersh’s approach on to the next generation of psychologists.
Two quick stories.
One thing that always amazed me about Hersh’s research was that his papers were always written so well. I could read a Leibowitz paper once and actually understand it, go figure. I always hoped that I’d learn his secrets to good writing. One day Hersh asked me to go outside with him so that we could write a paper. I was confused (why would we go outside to write?) but of course I went along. He took me to a picnic table near Moore Building and he pulled out his Dictaphone and he began speaking into the microphone. “Introduction period paragraph after decades of research comma…” I was amazed, and I’m sure my mouth hung open while what seemed like a carefully crafted Intro section flowed out. Clearly he had been “writing” it in his head for some time, probably while he ran, and what was flowing out seemed to me like it was already a polished masterpiece, not a rough draft. After a few minutes he had finished the Intro section and he handed the microphone to me and told me to write the methods section. I gulped nervously and decided to give it my best. I said “Methods period” and then began a few awkward minutes of unproductive stammering. I was hopeless. Eventually he let me escape after I promised I would give him a draft of the methods section on paper the next day. In the end the writing secret I learned was that you have to think clearly before you can write clearly. Hersh thought so clearly.
Hersh had a large poster hanging on the wall of his office. It was a photograph of the Earth taken by an Apollo astronaut during one of the first lunar orbits. Unlike the moon in the foreground, which was gray and lifeless, the Earth in the background was full of color and life. One day after a lab meeting Jeff Andre and I were amazed at the wild ideas for great experiments that had just flowed from Hersh (30 minutes of work from Hersh seemed somehow equal to about 5 years’ worth of work for others). We didn’t know where the ideas had come from. After that meeting, Jeff and I snuck into Hersh’s office, wrote “Hersh – wish you were here” on a sticky note, and stuck the note to the image of the Earth on his poster. Hersh loved it and the note was still there when I graduated two years later. Of course the note seems even more meaningful now.

  • Mar 15 2011, 9:00 AM

Charlotte Shupert responded:

Rick’s post recalling writing outdoors with a dictaphone with Hersh brought back a flood of memories of meeting Hersh in Germany for the first time.

Hersh was on sabbatical at the Neurological Clinic at the University of Freiburg, Germany, in the mid 70’s studying visually induced motion sensations (vection) and visual control of posture with Johannes Dichgans and his colleagues. I had just finished an MA in German and was living in Germany, trying to become as close to a native speaker as possible before going back for a PhD. Hersh relied heavily on his dictaphone then as well, and the secretaries at the clinic, who had been trained on British English, were having a hard time understanding his American accent colored by his Pennsylvania roots. Hersh and Johannes posted an ad near the university, looking for a secretary who could deal with American English, and I responded. It was a good match; he was raised in York County, and I was raised in Lancaster County, right next door.

My first encounter with his playfulness also had to do with dictation; he had a code for what signature to use on each letter. When he wanted to use his regular university signature, he would sign off as “Hersh Leibowitz, Big Shot.” When he was awarded the Evan Pugh Professorship, and wanted to use that signature, he signed off as “Hersh Leibowitz, Pugh Shot.”

One day he came in to where I was typing and told me that if I had any interest, I could help with the experiments, and I did, first by being a subject (I hesitate to think how many hours I logged in various dark places watching little lights move (autokinesis) and vection devices, whirling in place), but eventually acting as a research assistant also. Eventually I went back to PSU to a PhD, but not in German, as I had expected, but in Experimental Psychology. During my time at Penn State I also experienced outdoor writing, including on the beach during breaks at ARVO.

Hersh had a special brand of humor for everyone he worked with. He loved to joke around pretending that he was really a German speaker and did not speak English all that well and sometimes forgot the English word for something. He would produce the German word, and I would supply the English. He would then turn to the bemused listener and say with his trademark grin, “She translates for me.”

I too still have his book on visual perception on my shelf in my office. It will be there as long as I am here.

  • Mar 21 2011, 6:47 AM

Jay Enoch responded:

I first met Hersch many years ago at one of the annual vision science seminars run by the late Prof. Samuel Renshaw of the Department of Psychology in Arps Hall at Ohio State U. [Although we were also both at Columbia U. in New York City at the same time, Hersch and I never met there. At Columbia, he was a graduate student with Prof. Clarence Graham in the Department of Psychology. At the same time, I was a student in Columbia College, and then later, at the Columbia U. School of Optometry.] This was a few years after WWII.
Sam Renshaw had apparently been greatly influenced by the Optometric Extension Program. That organization sponsored Renshaw’s meetings, and was then playing a meaningful role in the optometric profession. My memory is that Hersch, Bob Boynton and I sat together at Sam’s yearly gatherings. We took copious notes on
these occasions. With much elbow poking, and a good bit of laughter, we three discovered that more than one of our very distinguished colleagues used the same paper every year at these meetings! And we devils would ask these speakers the same questions each year. To my knowledge, they never noticed this!
After that rather unusual introduction, Hersch and I served together on numerous committees and standards-setting groups, we attended quite a number of overlapping meetings, and our friendship grew. We shared some fine students(!), and research programs, and we visited back and forth. I very much miss Hersch, who was a true gentleman and a fine scholar. He was indeed a valued and admired friend and colleague!

  • Mar 23 2011, 9:19 AM

adam reeves responded:

Leibowitz’ Law refutes extromission.

  • Mar 31 2011, 6:57 AM

Chip Scialfa responded:

Thoughts about Hersh

I arrived at Penn State in September 1986, fresh out of my doctoral program in perception and aging. My post-doc was officially in methodology and aging but, knowing that Hersh was just “up the hill” and being familiar with his voluminous work, I asked my supervisor if I could split my time between methodology and vision research. Thankfully, he agreed and I introduced myself to Hersh the next week.

Now “the big guy” didn’t know me from Adam but as way his way I learned, he took me in with warmth, humor and respect. I spent the most enjoyable 2 years of my life working with him and the many fine people who made his lab a Mecca for vision scientists. Hersh was part hero, part colleague, part friend and part father figure for me and the time I spent at Penn State has shaped my thinking and my career for the past 25 years. I owe him eternal gratitude for the time we spent together, even those seemingly unimportant times when we went for an ice cream and talked about…”whatever”.

Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned from Hersh:

Be modest, but confident.

Never be afraid to ask the difficult questions.

Do your research so that you answer more questions than you have raised.

The best way to do applied research is to know the basics.

Encourage people to do their best and they will.

Take time to relax and enjoy life.

Be willing to make mistakes and to admit them.

… and…

You can’t see a darned thing in the dark.

Hersh’s light brightened the lives of everyone he touched. I hope to share that light again in the sweet Hereafter.

Chip Scialfa

Calgary, Canada

  • Apr 18 2012, 7:43 PM

rodemer responded:

I knew Hershel Leibowitz in Freiburg and in State College; he was a generous man, quick-witted and fun to be around. Though a research subject on many occasions in the striped drum in Freiburg, I was not fortunate enough to see Hersh in action with his research team — nonetheless, I enjoyed learning of his serendipitous discoveries and eager curiousity second-hand from his assistants.

My favorite story of his: it’s 1944, Hersh is on leave from the front in Paris and decides to go to the Opera. During intermission, Hersh is in the lobby, towering over the natives — but for one, across the room: Hersh made his way through the milling crowd and shook hands with Charles DeGaulle.