Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jerry’s Easy Creativity:

Jerry’s genius was so all-encompassing and informal, I bet that most of us are unaware of many of his accomplishments. The following anecdote might be of interest, as it shows his little-known role in getting Jack Eccles the Nobel Prize.

In the race between Eccles and Cole to be the first to succeed in recording intracellularly from neurons, there was a significant technical barrier. Glass micropipettes had the potential to make such recordings, but stray capacitance limited the size and quality of the intracellular signals. At a conference in Cold Spring Harbour (in the early 1950s I think) the problem of stray capacitance was discussed. Jerry said that it could easily be solved by incorporating some “negative capacitance” into the amplifier circuit. He then proceeded to draw on the blackboard a rough circuit that produced some negative capacitance.

The New Zealand physicist, Jack Coombs, was present when Jerry drew the negative capacitance circuit and it was he who told me this story. Jack took the details in his head back to New Zealand where he was Eccles’ right hand man in the project to record inside motoneurons. It took some ingenuity for Jack to substantiate Jerry’s ideas into the thermionic valves of the day, but he succeeded, and the rest is history. The first successful intracellular recording from spinal motoneurons followed and Eccles received the Nobel Prize for that achievement.

Like Jerry’s innovative studies of octopus retina that were never published, along with many others, the story of negative capacitance is mostly unsung, but I think is typical of his easy creativity.

Jack Pettigrew
27 April 2011

1 comment:

  1. I see from the publication list that I wrong about octopus retina, on which Jerry had a publication with Brian Boycott, Humberto Maturana,and Pat Wall. Sometimes a vivid personal impression pushes out any printed version of the same material. Jerry's one-on-one description of the strange sensorimotor phenomena in octopus retina is still glowing in my mind, more than 45 years since my first and only personal interaction with him when I was a medical student.