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WHITMAN A. RICHARDS

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WHITMAN A. RICHARDS Obituary
RICHARDS, Whitman A. MIT Professor of Cognitive Science, dies at 84. A member of the MIT community for over 60 years—died September 16th at his home in Newton, MA after living for several years with myelofibrosis, which ultimately led to his death.

A native Bostonian, he first arrived at MIT in 1950 as an undergraduate, following graduation from Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. After college, he fulfilled his military service with an assignment at the Central Intelligence Agency. He then joined his father's engineering company, Arklay S. Richards Company, located in Newton, MA. But he ultimately decided to follow his passion for scientific research and teaching, entering MIT's nascent Department of Psychology.

He was one of the first four graduates of that program, receiving his doctorate in 1965. Under the guidance of his mentor, Hans-Lucas Teuber, he opted to stay on and join MIT's faculty, which ultimately became the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He retired in 2013. His scientific career spanned five decades and included eight books and over 200 scientific papers. Yet, more notable than the numbers, his research ranged from experimental work, such as understanding the heredity of vision disorders, to theoretical work involving models of the mind using mathematical constructs such as graph theory.

He was a renaissance scientist: equally comfortable in a lab working with brain tissue under a microscope as working abstract mathematical theorems with pencil and paper. His early work focused on perception, particularly vision, and included studies of oculomotor influences on perception, perception of texture and movement, color vision, binocular vision, and neuroanatomy. An article he wrote for Scientific American in 1971, on the visual displays of migraines, is still widely cited. The insight for that article came about from his wife's bouts with migraines, where he posited that zigzag patterns in the visual aura is caused by the spatial layout of a specific type of neurons in the visual cortex.

During his mid-career, a close collaboration with Prof. David Marr redirected his research from the mechanisms of vision to understanding the minimal conditions that should be satisfied for a vision system to function. That work, along with subsequent findings by his students, appeared in a 1988 book, Natural Computation. In his most recent research, he shifted to theoretical work on perception and cognition, raising fundamental questions such as "What is a percept?" and "Is perception for real?" He focused on understanding the mind, or how a brain makes decisions, with emphasis on perception as a complex system of semi-autonomous modules. His book on this topic, Anigrafs: Experiments in Cooperative Cognitive Architecture, was published in 2015 by MIT Press. On campus,

Richards was often seen toting a squash racket, typically joined by a graduate student, where they would bang out ideas over a game of squash. Richards was nationally ranked in squash into his 50s, and often returned to his alma mater for guest matches with the boys' varsity team at Exeter. He also enjoyed playing tennis during the summer, and was a longtime member of Boston Tennis & Racquet Club, Longwood Cricket Club, and Newton's Windsor Club. Students knew Richards as an approachable faculty member who put his students first, establishing strong personal relationships with them and guiding them to successful careers. His daughters remember graduate students often invited to their home, with discussions around a dinner table set with home-cooked meals. Because of his love of science, he was an avid collector of slide rules. His collection is currently being curated for donation to an educational institution or museum.

He most enjoyed spending time at his farm in Ellsworth, NH, where he purchased his first parcel of land at age 17 with a loan from his mother. He and his wife eventually built a solar-powered home there, and later, in their 70's, built a two-story barn using only hand tools. Maintaining the property was a joy to him, and with the help of his daughter Nora and son-in-law Tom, they have protected 200 acres from development adjacent to the White Mountains National Forest.

Richards is survived by his wife of 54 years, Waltraud Weller Richards, and three daughters: Diana Richards Doyle and husband Mark S. Doyle of Green Cove Springs, FL; Sylvia Richards-Gerngross and husband Tillman Gerngross of Hanover, NH; and Eleanor "Nora" Richards Bender and husband Thomas A. Bender of Dedham, MA. He is also survived by his two siblings: Lincoln K. Richards and wife Gerda of Wellesley, MA, and Sylvia Richards Messner of Cave Creek, AZ; and by two grandchildren, Morgan Kelly Doyle and Serafina Richards-Gerngross. Memorial services will be private.

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Published in The Boston Globe on Sept. 25, 2016
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