09 November 2003

Good night, Dr. Griffin, where ever you are...

One of researcher I never had a chance to meet, but wish I had, died Friday: Don Griffin. His primary claim to fame was that he discovered how bats are able to navigate in the dark: namely, through echolocation. Prior to that, I’ve heard that people seriously suggested that bats were clairvoyant, because they couldn't figure out how they did this.

Now, let me play James Burke and show the connections between that discovery and my own career. Don Griffin, working with Robert Galambos, discovers bat echolocation. Following this discovery, Ken Roeder observed that moths behaved differently when echolocating bats were around. Later, one of his students, one Dorothy Paul, published two papers in Journal of Insect Physiology on the nervous system of noctuid moths. Dorothy Paul was my supervisor for my doctoral work.

But there's a second connection. Having found that moths were specifically listening for echolocating bats, other insects were found to be able to hear those ultrasonic cries. Crickets were one of those species, and a large part of my first post-doctoral position (with Gerald Pollack) was researching some of the auditory interneurons in crickets that respond to bat-like ultrasound.

So, the late Don Griffin is sort of an intellectual great-grandfather.

Another reason Griffin was someone I wanted to meet was that he was a thoughtful writer. In the last couple of decades, he wrote many articles and books on the prospect that we could scientifically study the minds of other species. He was one of the founders of the field now called “cognitive ethology.” And I should note that he was doing this at a time when many scientists have retired.

If an afterlife existed, I would hope that Dr. Griffin would finally have a chance to enjoy retirement.

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