Talbot H. Waterman

T. W. Cronin, J. Marshall, M. F. Wehling

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As this special issue covering recent research on the biology of polarized-light perception reached final preparation, sadly we lost one of the field's founding fathers. Talbot Waterman passed away in September, 2010. We owe Talbot much for his early and continuing research on polarization and its significance to animals, and consequently this issue is dedicated to his memory.

Talbot was born nearly a century ago, in 1914. His direction in life was set early in his career at Harvard University. As a freshman, he attended lectures by G. H. Parker, an expert on crustacean vision. Clearly, Parker was an inspiring figure; within a year of graduating in 1936, magna cum laude, Talbot had published his first scientific paper on arthropod vision, describing the spectral sensitivity of the eyes of a water mite. He continued with graduate work at Harvard, publishing research on deep-sea animals and on crustacean neurobiology, and received his doctorate in 1943. Talbot then joined the military as a Scientific Consultant. During the remainder of the war he was stationed at various bases in the Pacific, and this experience led to a 1946 paper in American Scientist on Japanese radar. His exposure to electronic engineering and expertise in radar, no doubt, provided insights critical to his future success in research on systems of animal orientation and navigation.

Waterman joined the Department of Zoology at Yale University in 1947, where he remained a faculty member for the next four decades. In fact, he never broke his connection with the Yale, being active as an emeritus professor until his death. Research on the biology of polarized-light perception would have followed a quite different course had Tal missed a Yale seminar presented by Karl von Frisch soon after he arrived. Drawing on his experience with animal orientation, deep-sea biology and electrophysiology, Talbot was inspired by von Frisch's description of the polarized-light senses of honeybees to wonder if marine animals used a similar sense to navigate underwater. He soon found that indeed, the eyes of marine arthropods did respond electrophysiologically to the properties of polarized light. Never content to confine his research to the laboratory, Tal (an early adopter of scuba) used his wartime experience with polarizing gunsights to make an underwater hand-held polarizer that could be used to measure underwater polarization patterns. This was followed by shipboard work on polarization in the open ocean using submersible cameras and electronic radiometers.

Waterman's work on the structure, optics, physiology and behavioural significance of polarization detection and on the natural distribution of polarized light, particularly underwater, led to numerous elegant and authoritative papers in top scientific journals. His reviews on these topics—most notably his chapter in the Handbook of Sensory Physiology—remain essential reading for today's scientists (and are frequently consulted by everyone working in the field). He also edited a definitive account of crustacean physiology, a two-volume review of the field published in 1961. Tal's deep engagement with research continued until his death, and it was common for him to contact younger researchers by telephone, letter or email to discuss their current work—with which he was fully familiar, and with which he did not always agree! His most recent paper appeared in 2006, when he was 92 years old, an astonishing accomplishment.

Travelling did not end after his years in the service. Tal was an itinerant researcher in the years when international travel was far more of a commitment than it is today. He did research in laboratories around the world—Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Palau Islands, Japan, Australia—and maintained worldwide collaborations. In fact, he worked with the premier optical oceanographer of the last century, Nils Gunnar Jerlov, and fittingly The Oceanography Society selected him in 2008 for the Jerlov Award, recognizing his pioneering research on polarized light in the ocean. At the age of 94 he flew off to Italy for the presentation of this award.

While scientific research was his lifelong passion, Waterman also had a deep and far-ranging interest in the arts: classical music including opera, visual arts, dance, theatre. In high school he learned to play the clarinet, and performed a Franz List piano concerto in his senior year. He would often tell the story of how he became friendly with the stage doorman at the old Met Opera house who would welcome him into the house and lead him high above the stage to see and hear some of the great opera singers of the times. He maintained a fine, eclectic art collection, at one time specializing in Australian art at a time when it was not well-known worldwide. He and his lifetime partner, Joe Gifford, also travelled widely for pleasure and cultural experience, making excursions throughout Asia, Europe, Russia and Australia.

The work appearing in this special issue owes much to Talbot Waterman's research legacy, and he will be missed. Appropriately, his 60 years of work on polarized light in nature and its impact on animals continue to remain relevant for the next generation of researchers. His lifelong record of energy and drive is an inspiration to all of us.