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The hearing aid (Part 2)


The hearing aid (Part 1)
Richard Gregory Scientist
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The Bristol laboratory, which is sadly no more, was in the Medical School. It was just one floor in the Anatomy Department of the building, and I moved here for various reasons but it was quite a good choice I think, I like Bristol. Bristol University has been very good to me indeed and, indeed, goes on supporting me in my old age, you know, I still have the secretary and a couple of offices and so on in the university, which is great, and I was given funding from the Medical Research Council, really, quite honestly, to do whatever I liked. It was amazing. I didn’t have any special thing we had to work on and I found the Medical Research Council absolutely amazing employers. Once they sort of liked you, obviously they’ve got to trust you to some degree, you get total support. They’re wonderful, I think, and I just hope that remains. I really would like to say that I think if that ability to find a niche for yourself where you can do your own thing, if that goes and the competition gets so great that there are no places to just work away without worrying about support and so on go, I think we’ve really lost science in this country. I think it’s absolutely crucial, really, and, of course, it also attracts students because they know that with a bit of luck they can end up in their own choice of environment and work on what they want to work on, which is what science is about, plus accepting challenges as well but you need that part of it. Anyway, I was very lucky because I got my niche in that little laboratory with about 12 people and we worked on lots of things. One of them was the hearing aid. Now, the hearing aid is the thing that I think I most regret in my entire life because I think it was a really good idea and we all get a bit deaf, I’m damn well getting deaf, everybody does, yeah, and I felt that hearing aids are pretty awful things really. I mean when you think of the industry of ophthalmology and glasses and so on, it’s a very reputable, very, very good industry, I think, they do a wonderful job, they really take care of their patients. I didn’t feel the same was true, to be honest, with hearing at that time at least. Mark you, the problem is much more difficult, the problems of deafness are much greater than the problems of needing glasses; it’s a relatively easy thing to deal with. But anyway, I got interested in it from having measured the signal to noise ratio in the nervous system, relating it to aging, when I was at Cambridge. Then I thought, well, why don’t we use these ideas to try to design a new sort of hearing aid which would increase the effectiveness of the available signal and somehow diminish the noise level which is a random activity going on all the time, you hear it, very often, buzzing in your ears, which gets in the way, like being at a party where you can’t hear other people because the other people are making a racket, drowning them, so that we’re really living in a sea of randomness in the nervous system and you have to pick out what’s significant from all that randomness. I wanted to try to make a hearing aid that would help.

The late British psychologist and Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol, Richard Gregory (1923-2010), is well known for his work on perception, the psychology of seeing and his love of puns. In 1978 he founded The Exploratory, an applied science centre in Bristol – the first of its kind in the UK. He also designed and directed the Special Senses Laboratory at Cambridge which worked on the perceptual problems of astronauts, and published many books including 'The Oxford Companion to the Mind', 'Eye and Brain' and 'Mind in Science'.

Listeners: Adam Hart-Davis Sally Duensing

Born on 4 July 1943, Adam Hart-Davis is a freelance photographer, writer, and broadcaster. He has won various awards for both television and radio. Before presenting, Adam spent 5 years in publishing and 17 years at Yorkshire Television, as researcher and then producer of such series as Scientific Eye and Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers. He has read several books, and written about 25. His latest books are Why does a ball bounce?, Taking the piss, Just another day, and The cosmos: a beginner's guide. He has written numerous newspaper and magazine articles. He is a keen supporter of the charities WaterAid, Practical Action, Sustrans, and the Joliba Trust. A Companion of the Institution of Lighting Engineers, an Honorary Member of the British Toilet Association, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society of Dyers and Colourists, and Merton College Oxford, and patron of a dozen charitable organizations, Adam has collected thirteen honorary doctorates, The Horace Hockley Award from the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, a Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Medal from the Institute of Incorporated Engineers, and the 1999 Gerald Frewer memorial trophy of the Council of Engineering Designers. He has no car, but three cycles, which he rides slowly but with enthusiasm.

Sally Duensing currently is involved in perception exhibition work and research on science and society dialogue programmes and is working with informal learning research graduate students and post-docs at King's College, London. In 2000 she held the Collier Chair, a one-year invited professorship in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Bristol, England. Prior to this, for over 20 years she was at the Exploratorium, a highly interactive museum of science, art and perception in San Francisco where she directed a variety of exhibition projects primarily in fields of perception and cognition including a large exhibition on biological, cognitive and cultural aspects of human memory.

Duration: 3 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008