Acoustical Society of America
R. Bruce Lindsay Award - 1994

Robert P. Carlyon

Robert P. Carylon (Bob) was born in 1959 in Weymouth, Dorset on the fringes of Hardy country. He graduated from Weymouth Grammar School with high "A"-level grades in Mathematics, Economics, and French, securing a place at the University of Sussex to read Experimental Psychology. There he was part of an outstanding year of undergraduate students, many of whom subsequently became university teachers in Cognitive Psychology. It was not immediately apparent either to his peers or to his teachers that Bob's destiny lay in academic distinction. His early years at university were dominated by the other loves of his life. The story is told of how his black belt in Judo helped him to perform a gallant rescue of his "dorm's" Christmas turkey from the clutches of unscrupulous, though less well-endowed raiders. Sobering into his third year, Bob's mathematical background and his interest in language pointed him towards taking Chris Darwin's course on Speech and Hearing. Here in 1980 he had his first taste of experimental hearing research with a project on the perception of vowels cued only by their formant transitions. In those days, speech synthesis at Sussex was performed by "the green machine," a PDP-12 whose whirring tapes, flashing lights, and toggle switches appealed to the Star Trecker in Bob. He was seduced by technology for science. On graduating, he was offered a place to study for a Ph.D. in Brian Moore's laboratory in Cambridge.

Bob wasted no time in starting on his thesis work at Cambridge. He had a broad topic in mind when he started, and almost every day he would come up with a new idea for an experiment. It was already clear that Bob was an original and creative thinker. Early on in his experimentation he discovered that, for brief bursts of high-frequency sinusoids, intensity discrimination was worse at moderate sound levels than at very high or low sound levels, an effect that he termed the "severe departure" from Weber's law, or, more modestly, "the Carlyon hump." He carried out a series of experiments to explore this effect and its underlying mechanisms. The publication of these findings in "The Journal" was fraught with some difficulty, partly because the reviewers and associate editor found the results difficult to believe. However, Bob kept his cool (just), and a series of papers on the "severe departure" eventually appeared.

Most Ph.D. students in Britain have difficulty in finishing within the three years of a standard "studentship." With Bob, the problem was rather different. He had more than enough work completed after only about two years, but he did not want to finish too early, in case his studentship (i.e., his money) was terminated. So, he spun things out a little, but still found time to spend about a month in Dave Green's laboratory (then at the "other" Cambridge) during the summer of his final year of Ph.D. work. A shocking letter received from Dave Green during that time included a clipping from the Weekly World News with a photo of Bob and the headline "Jealous computer kills top scientist." Fortunately, the letter turned out to be a hoax.

Bob left Cambridge in 1984 to take up a post as Research Scientist at the MRC Institute of Hearing Research (IHR) in Nottingham. There he continued and extended his basic psychoacoustic work, branching out into several new areas, particularly temporal effects in masking and the perception of frequency modulation. He also started to study the psychoacoustics of hearing impairment. After three years at IHR, he spent a year in the USA as a Pigott-Wernher Traveling Fellow and Visiting Professor in the laboratory of Mary Florentine and Søren Buus in Boston. His research continued apace, helped by frequent visits to the local brewhouse and to Chinatown, where his favorite restaurant bore the slogan "No MSG, no tipping, just good food." One of the publications resulting from his time in the USA provides significant insights into the reasons why temporal integration appears to differ for normally hearing and hearing-impaired subjects.

Bob returned to Sussex in 1988, as a holder of a prestigious Royal Society University Research Fellowship. This renewable fellowship gave him a period of stability to build up his own laboratory and establish his own individual research program. Within a few months "Bob's Lab and Grill" was in production, returning to the study of frequency-modulated tones that he had started with Richard Stubbs at IHR. Intrigued by the failure of others to find any evidence that listeners can segregate sounds on the basis of different frequency modulations, Bob produced the quite unexpected result that listeners are actually unable to discriminate coherent from incoherent frequency modulation across different frequency regions. Although this result has been challenged, Bob has successfully defended his original conclusion with characteristic vigor and tenacity.

Lubricated by many bottles of fine claret, Bob has also developed a creative and pleasurable collaboration with Laurent Demany and Catherine Semal's laboratory in Bordeaux. Their initial joint work on across-frequency mechanisms involved in pitch perception has been expanded at Sussex into a series of papers providing evidence that the pitches of resolved and unresolved harmonics are perceived by different mechanisms.

Bob has an enviable serendipity; his research has brought unexpected discoveries to the field of psychoacoustics. But it is his personal vigor, forthrightness, and outrageous humor that have particularly endeared him to his colleagues. He brings an energy and a commitment to the field that inspires others.

He would not want us to end this encomium without paying tribute to the two women who have shaped his life: first his mother, the scourge of Weymouth retailers, from whom he inherited his directness and energy, and whose meat pies made him the man he is; second, his wife, Alison, whom he met at IHR, who can both tame the bear in him and spot the mistakes in this experimental designs.