Dear Friends and Colleagues of NatOctober 3, 2016
This website was created as a memorial to Nat. The intent is to fill it in as time goes on. If you wish to be kept up-to-date about new content here, or have questions, or materials you’d like added to the site, please email his son David at: natmemorial ( at ) daviddurlach.com.
In honor and memory of Nat an endowed Nathaniel I. Durlach Graduate Fellowship has been established at MIT. His friend and colleague Denny Freeman described the fellowship at Nat’s memorial service. (Should you wish to contribute to this fellowship’s endowment, directions may be found here.)
We invite you to share your memories using the Comments section below.
By Steve Colburn of BU and Charlotte Reed of MIT
Nathaniel I. Durlach died peacefully at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, September 27, 2016. Nat was 88 years old, having only very recently retired from his productive research career. His loss is felt deeply by his family, his colleagues, and the many other people whose lives were deeply affected by this wonderful, gentle, and brilliant man.
Nat is survived by his wife of 28 years, Rosalind Chait Barnett, his sons David and Peter Durlach, and their mother Hansi Durlach. Nat was born in New York City, studied at St. John’s College from 1943 to 1945, and then received the B.A. from Bard College in 1950 and the M.A. in mathematics from Columbia University in 1954. He then conducted research at Harvard University from 1956 to 1957 in psychology and biology while working on radar at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Nat joined the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) at MIT in 1963, formed the Sensory Communications Group there, and maintained an active research group with whom he continued to work and collaborate essentially up to the present. In the 1980s, Nat joined the developing Hearing Research Center at Boston University, and maintained his appointment and strong collaborations there as well.
Nat is well known across the world for his modeling of binaural processing (the EC model), which he developed in the early 1960s and which is still used by many researchers in multiple areas of research, and for his ground-breaking work in intensity perception. He also started the journal PRESENCE which publishes work on virtual environments and teleoperators. Over the years, Nat received much recognition and many awards, including the Silver Medal from the Acoustical Society of America in 1994 “For pioneering contributions to research concerning binaural hearing, intensity perception, hearing aids, tactile aids, and virtual reality.”
The powerful personal impact of Nat Durlach was captured in the following quote from the final paragraph of his citation for the Silver Medal, written by one of his early students and current MIT Professor Louis Braida: “Nat’s career as a scientist has covered a remarkable range of topics that are tied together by his basic interest in sensory systems and communication. Independent of the topic, Nat has a gift for assessing the current status of the field, asking the right questions to advance the state of knowledge in that field, and knowing how to design long-range experimental and theoretical programs of research. And he does this with a total lack of pretense and concern for status. When he works on a problem, everyone’s ideas and opinions are regarded with equal value and attention, from new undergraduates to recognized “authorities.” This approach has attracted a wide variety of students, postdocs, and established scholars to the Sensory Communication group at MIT and has made his contributions to many scientific panels highly regarded. The infectious joy, high enthusiasm, and intellectual honesty that characterize his approach to life continue to spark the creativity of all his colleagues.”
“Nat had enormous impact on my life and my career. He was the most influential mentor I ever had on a personal and professional level, and a wonderful human being who enriched the lives of the people he touched in so many ways. His curiosity, creativity, humility and inclusiveness were an inspiration for all of us.”
Yoojin Chung, Ph.D.
“I was one of the many students who enjoyed Nat’s presence and the wonderful environment he helped create at the hearing research center at BU. I am so sorry to hear of your loss.”
“He was a very special guy. I’m recalling a barbecue at your old house in Arlington….you were throwing paper into the charcoal and creating a big potentially dangerous fire. Nat asked you to stop. You said, “Why, I’m not hurting anything.” Nat paused and then said “Actually, you’re right.” And he let you keep doing it!”
“I didn’t get to know Nat really. But the handful of times I was in social situations with him I so much enjoyed the kindness and fun I felt in him, and wish I had gotten to know him more. I met David about 24 years ago, and shortly after that met his dad, sharing a meal with David and Nat in a small restaurant in Central Square.
I was feeling pretty quiet and shy. David, in David-like fashion, was speaking with enthusiasm and energy on some topic. And at some point in the increasingly rapid flow of communication, without planning or intention, I found myself suddenly reaching over and covering his mouth with my hand. Nat burst out laughing, immediately followed by David and me.
It was a fun moment.”
His son David
“As a small child, wanting to cross streets with my eyes closed, arguing that my hearing was more than sufficient to alert me to any potential oncoming vehicles. Nat trying (unsuccessfully) to convince me through logical argument that it was just too dangerous. Eventually, giving up on that path, asking me not to do it just ‘as a personal favor to him’.”
“When I was in my electricity experimentation phase as a boy, Nat purchasing rubber electrician gloves and a large rubber mat for our cellar, rated at 10,000 volts, in order to (apparently successfully) keep me alive.
The only rule (since I drew so much power with my 100 lb hand-made water-cooled electromagnet, and hand-made arc-welding equipment) was that I not work when he and my mother Hansi were trying to read at night, because the lights dimming off and on in their bedroom ‘made him queasy’.”
“A large pine tree in the front yard of our house needed to be cut down. My parents wanted to hire a professional but I said that ‘was ridiculous’ – I could do it. Nat eventually agreed, but only if I implemented a safety device to protect our house. This ended up being his friend and colleague Steve Colburn’s mountain climbing safety rope, tied between the upper part of the tree in question and a tree diametrically opposite our dwelling. I then tied a string to the upper part of the tree, which I planned to pull in the direction I wanted to the tree to fall. My plan in place, and having cut the tree base 95% through with an axe, I went inside to get my parents so they could see the tree fall. While Nat watched from the porch, a 0.0001MPH breeze arrived, blowing in the wrong direction. Feet planted on our driveway, and the string firmly in my grasp, I was ever so slowly pulled along the asphalt in the wrong direction. The tree then pivoted toward the house, straining against Steve’s rope which, being elastic nylon of course, started to stretch. The tree came crashing down, missing our house by inches, but crushing the fence enclosing our garbage can storage area.”
“Nat (bodily) negotiating a truce between my younger brother Peter and I when, after I had “used up all the snow’ in our back yard by rolling a large (inappropriately so, apparently) snow ball, in tearful distress my brother was chasing after me with a baseball bat.”
“When Peter was in his baseball years, Nat getting him a professional grade pitching machine, and then working with Peter to advance his batting skills while at the same time preventing the 100MPH plus velocity machine-ejected curve balls from taking Peter’s head off. (I will leave the story of Peter using that same machine to shoot a tennis ball from inside the house out through our front doorway’s plate glass window for another time.)”
“More recently (circa 2015 and well into my adult years), when I was not feeling well and was scared and laying down on the rug at Roz and his apartment, Nat spontaneously laying down on the rug next to me to so kindly keep me company…And when I was in the hospital for a related matter, he came to visit, poked my big toe that was pushing up from under the sheet with his cane, and smiled.”
His other son (the tall one :-), Peter
“As I sat down to write this remembrance, I had the opportunity to read again all of the stories and reflections of Nat’s many friends, colleagues and relatives that are contained on this amazing website. I can only think of Nat reading these, tearing up and being incredibly humbled and touched by all the kind and respectful words. And of course making some offhand joke – probably something like “they must be talking about someone else…”
“As a child growing up, I have a number of enduring memories of my dad, mom and our extended family. One of the strongest memories revolved around our extended “MIT family.” As we all know, Nat was very committed to his profession and all of his colleagues from MIT and around the world. I vividly remember spending a lot of time running around RLE as a child, sitting in on meetings discussing things I didn’t understand at all, and very much becoming part of the extended family there. I remember many times interacting with Steve, Lou, Charlotte, Bill, Pat and the entire gang. It was at MIT that I also first came in contact with computers and remember actually writing my first program, on I believe a PDP-11 (some sort of submarine game of course….). Although I didn’t become a programmer, these early experiences with computers certainly had a profound impact on my eventual career in the software industry. I also remember all the great parties that Hansi and Dad had at our house in Arlington where our “two” families seamlessly intermingled and the conversation meandered from acoustics, to politics, to sailing and other seemingly disconnected topics – all while laughter occurred throughout. And I really think that Dad loved these events since he could be with many of the people he loved all at once.”
“Another very strong childhood memory for me centered around our summers in upstate NY with a whole gaggle of my dad’s relatives. As many of you know, my grandparents and some of their siblings all bought houses very near each other in Sharon Springs NY. My brother and I spent almost every summer growing up there in the same house as my Dad’s sister and her kids (our cousins Eric, Ross and Joel). These were magical, and often chaotic, and sometimes even psychotic times. Growing up in this environment where the humor was flying fast and furious, you had to keep up because the skills were quite polished and you had to be razor sharp. As the youngest of all five cousins, I think I was forever affected. To see Eric, Ross, Joel and David in full form was a site to behold….When thinking about what episodes to include here that involved my dad, there are so many wonderful choices… One that I remember involving Nat occurred at a hotel in Cooperstown we often visited with our family and many of our cousins. We were sitting at brunch one day and I had the habit of filling my plate until it was overflowing with food. On this particular occasion, I was sitting at a table with my uncle Bernie, my brother and a few others. While at the table, my uncle was clearly not happy with the amount of food I had selected and made some comment about not wasting food and making sure I ate everything on the plate. Well as you would imagine, I got full long before my plate was emptied. Fearful of my uncle’s likely response, I looked around and waited for him to go back to the brunch line. While he did, I carefully took my plate and dumped the rest of my food underneath the table. As I brought the plate back up, I could see that Nat had seen the entire crime. He looked at me and a small wry smile appeared. Then he laughed and went on with the rest of the conversation, never saying anything to me or to my uncle.”
“Another “incident” occurred with the aforementioned pitching machine that my brother David referenced in his comments. My cousin Joel and I were the baseball players in our flock and one day we had the pitching machine out in a yard in Sharon practicing catching pop ups with Nat and David. It’s hard to convey how far up this pitching machine could send a baseball when your turned the speed up to around 90-100mph. Well on this day we wanted to really test our metal so we cranked up the speed. To set the situation – you need to know that there was a greenhouse about 50 yards away on another lawn. This greenhouse was a favorite of my uncle Felix (Joel’s dad). And Felix had specifically warned us not to do any damage to the greenhouse. It’s also important to note that the greenhouse’s roof was pretty much all glass…. So here we are with Nat shooting baseballs into the air at high velocity. Well, as you can imagine, at this speed and at this height, small changes in wind direction can have dire consequences. So as one ball goes shooting into the air, Joel and I watch in horror as the ball starts coming down in what appears to be a beeline for the Greenhouse. We are all panicked. As the ball hurtles towards the glass roof, we all see our lives pass before our eyes. The ball hurtles down and we hear a loud crack and the ball bounces off the roof of the Greenhouse and onto the yard with no resulting damage. We are all flabbergasted. We walk towards the Greenhouse and realize the ball had miraculously hit one of the narrow wood strips supporting the glass panes, saving us from who knows what… We all broke into uncontrollable laughter….”
“Back in Arlington, there are many other memories that involved my mom and dad. I too remember my brother disappearing into the basement in Arlington to play with his high power electromagnet. I never quite figured out his fascination with that contraption, but I must say I too was impressed by its ability to dim the lights not just in our house, but also throughout the entire neighborhood. And I was especially impressed by David’s unending excitement to expose me to these wonders of physics. Although these early, and I may say traumatic experiences, may in fact be the cause of my complete avoidance of hard science throughout my academic life… And through it all, my dad and mom let David keep this machine, which I believe was one of only three in the entire country– the other two were housed I believe in high security settings within the Los Almost National Laboratory…. I also remember a sequence of events which so epitomized what seemed like weekly occurrences in our house. As many folks know, we had a driveway with a circular component in the middle. There was a time when both my mom and dad would leave the house at the same time. They both had cars that were parked near the front door of the house and facing the door. So… They both get in their cars. They start the backup. On goes one way around the circle; the other goes the other way. I bet you know what happens. BANG.. they back right up into each other… They start laughing. We laugh. About a month later… Deja vu. It happens all over again. And this time one of them runs over a go cart they bought for me. Priceless…”
“My wife Amy and I have a number of beautiful memories about Nat since we were married, but the one that still stands out is when he spoke at our wedding. He was very eloquent and told us to “keep lighting up the planet.” Although this comment was directed at both of us, I really believe that he was commenting on Amy’s amazing grace, joy, smile and love of life that she exudes. It was very Nat like to focus on this. It was a magical moment that neither Amy nor I will forget. ”
“Like my brother, many of my memories involving Nat as you can see often involved humor of one form or another – some on purpose and some just by happenstance. Nat’s love of humor was unbounded. Although my humor can sometimes come out at inappropriate times, I’m forever grateful that this love of humor has been passed onto me. I don’t think there is enough laughter in this world. There is too much suffering and too many things are sometimes taken too seriously…. I also have taken with me by Dad’s and Mom’s respect for others and never generalizing about people. Always look at the individual and who they are – never what class, or race, or background they come from.”
“Although I’m very sad that dad has passed away, I do believe that he lived a very blessed life with lots of friends, people that loved and respected him and some great accomplishments. I will always remember him as a warm, gentle, humble and very funny soul.”
“Love you dad.”
Dear Colleagues, Nat Durlach is rightly celebrated for his kindness and generosity, and also for his brilliance. I encountered all these traits 35 years ago when Mark Klein and I found the binaural edge pitch (BEP) and related it to Nat’s EC model. Then Nat made a critical observation that ultimately inspired the binaural coherence edge pitch (BICEP) years later. The BEP and BICEP, and their resemblance to the pitches of monaural analogs, persuade me that the human binaural system has a mode of operation very much like Nat’s cancellation process. Nat got that right … and much else. I will miss him.
“I remember Nat with great fondness and respect. He lived a full life with enormous contributions to science and to his students and colleagues.”
“Nat’s been an important person in my life. I’m both sad, and so grateful he was a part of my life.”
Dear David, So sorry to hear about your Dad. What a loss. He had a huge impact on me and my career. I know without a doubt that I became a better writer and scientist for having been mentored by him as a postdoc. Over my career in academia I have tried to instill in my students many of the things I learned from Nat. I consider myself very lucky to have been his colleague and friend.
Sheldon (Xiaodong) Pang
“Nat had a tremendous impact on me during my eight years at MIT. He was a mentor, a friend, and a constant source of inspiration.”
“What I remember most about my time in the MIT lab was learning, by Nat’s example, how to think and how to write. He did both at a more profound level than I had ever seen before. Even the goofy stuff that was always happening was often inspired by one of his off-the-wall, surprisingly deep observations.”
“Nat was an extraordinary person and I have such fond and wonderful memories of him.”
Adriana dos Reis
“I love your dad so much. He was the nicest, sweetest, loving man I ever met. It hurts so much just to think I won’t see or hear his voice again, but for sure I will carry him in my thoughts and heart for the rest of my life. I have such wonderful memories.”
“Nat was an amazing mentor and friend. The infectious joy he took in scientific discovery ¬ and in life¬ is something I try to emulate to this day. I find myself remembering meetings where his mischievousness and brilliance battled for supremacy, with the battle leaning one way only to tip the other in the next instant. I miss him immensely.”
“I was very sorry to hear of Nat’s passing. I worked with him on the Presence journal for many years. I always loved talking with him, especially his reassuring manner and voice, his sense of humour, his curiosity and also humility. He was a mentor to me in some ways, and gave me the opportunity to spend a very productive time at MIT. He also recruited me to be the co-editor of the journal, which was an amazing opportunity. He is someone who I will miss very greatly. He is someone who made an enormous contribution in many ways, to many people. I am deeply sorry for your loss.”
“Nat was one of a kind, a remarkable wise man who had a profound influence on my life, and the life of my family.
I first met Nat in 1972 at a small workshop in San Diego devoted to a wide range of topics in hearing. We hit it off. It was obvious why I liked Nat. He was quick, irreverent, and very funny. I have no idea why he liked me. Nat worked in binaural hearing, and I would go on to record from single neurons in the auditory cortex of cat. We worked at opposite ends of the country in different fields, so we didn’t see each other after the workshop adjourned.
Twelve years later, out of the blue, ...continue
After listening to many talks by experts, reading “Snow Crash,” and experiencing virtual reality myself, I realized that Nat was a visionary. Immersed in a virtual space that feels real, embodied as an avatar, interacting with other avatars in total anonymity, unconstrained by social convention, was a remarkable, frightening experience. Nat understood very early on that virtual reality eventually will become a major part of life.
After the committee dissolved, we wrote a paper on auditory displays, but then lost contact again, and another ten years passed. I needed help getting a job in the Boston area so that my daughter could get continuing medical care. I had contract money, but needed an institution with which to be affiliated. I called Nat, and within a couple of months, I had an appointment at MIT.
That was Nat’s way. Somehow whenever I needed help, Nat had the right advice or the right connection or the right insight to solve the problem. A couple of years after he got me the MIT appointment, I realized that I needed serious money to fund a trust that my wife and I had created for our special-needs daughter. Nat and Jack Kotik invited me to become a member of an LLC that invested money in a fund-of-funds hedge fund that invested in a fabulous hedge fund called Renaissance. I took our savings and invested, thinking that we were all set, but a few months later we heard that Renaissance was about to kick out all outside investors, so we would be back to square one.
Once again, Nat came through for me. One day while I was in Nat’s office I noticed a name – Robert Mercer – that I recognized on a piece of paper on his desk. Nat told me that Mercer was one of Renaissance’s managers. I had talked to Mercer once twenty years ago at the Los Alamos Inn, so I called Mercer and eventually got a job at Renaissance. After seven years my daughter’s Trust was funded and I was ready to leave. I have always credited Nat with making it possible for me to ensure my daughter’s future.
For each of those seven years that I was at Renaissance, it was Nat who convinced the MIT administration to let me occasionally use an office, and maintain an official unpaid position so that I would have a place to work when I left Renaissance. I still use that office today.
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Mandayam A. SrinivasanOctober 7, 2016 at 3:04 am
Nat: My friend, mentor, role model, guardian angel; one of the most kind and generous souls I have ever met. From the moment we met almost 3 decades ago, he nurtured me as part of his RLE family and gave me unconditional freedom to pursue my research interests. I cherish the memory of many broad ranging and deep discussions, whether on travel or past midnight, just after driving to the airport to send yet another grant proposal by the last FedEx. I will miss him deeply. In facing life’s challenges, his virtual presence will continue to guide me through the question “What would Nat have done?”
Andre RosowskyOctober 7, 2016 at 2:16 pm
Nat was warm, witty, and a great dinner companion whom my wife Erlene and I will miss dearly. I once had the privilege of giving a talk to his BU group on how to write a good NIH grant, something with which I had plenty of acquaintance as both an applicant and a reviewer. Who knows, maybe the talk even did someone some good…
Terry Ann KnopfOctober 8, 2016 at 12:09 am
In this mean-spirited and cynical age of Trump, the world has not only lost
a pioneering research scientist, but a sweet and gentle man as well.
Terry Ann Knopf
Elizabeth JochnickOctober 8, 2016 at 2:27 am
Although we only knew Nat for a few years, after he and Roz moved into an apartment next door to us at Ten Ten, we were always impressed with his humility, humor, gentleness, and kindness. Even though these last years were tough for him, he never complained. We will miss our neighbor and good friend. ….with much sympathy to your whole family, Liz and Adolf Jochnick
matthew joseph chaitOctober 9, 2016 at 5:46 am
Nat was my brother-in-law. About thirty years ago he brought love and an exquisite gentle kindness into my sister’s life and the lives of her children at a time when these qualities were sorely needed. He brought comfort and companionship to my mother during the last two years of her life in a manner that can only be described as saintly. I have been fortunate to have my share of friends, but few heroes. For me, Nat was a true hero.
Hanfeng YuanOctober 13, 2016 at 5:45 am
Nat was a great mentor. I’m forever grateful for his support, encouragement, and inspiration. He was a true gentleman, with a generous spirit, a wonderful role model. It was a honor and privilege to have met him. I miss him already .
Erick GallunOctober 18, 2016 at 9:12 pm
I remember so clearly my amazement when I came to BU and started interacting with Nat. He was just so natural and open about the process of thinking about the problems we were working on. Seeing him think out loud and following his thought process was one of the best educational experiences of my life.
It also gave me so much more confidence to just follow my own intuitions. I was very intimidated by not having a strong math and engineering background but Nat taught me by example that problem solving is about exploring what you don’t understand rather than covering it up.
And the love he had for the process was so infectious. I really believe he taught me how to be a scientist more than anyone else. And, yes, that means being irreverent as possible! How else can you see what everyone else is missing? The amazing piece was his brilliance. Because he so often did see what others didn’t and then went on to figure out what to do about it! I am so blessed to have gotten to spend time with him.
Virginia OLeary and Kirk SwissOctober 19, 2016 at 4:55 am
Kirk and I so enjoyed the time we spent with Nat and Roz, talking politics and climate change, and saviring a good meal and sharing a hearty laugh. Nat was kind and caring, as well as brilliant. He touched the lives of many in profound and positive ways.
Lynette JonesOctober 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm
Nat was a wonderful colleague and friend; he always seemed to manage to look on the bright side of things. Even when he was annoyed about something or someone he expressed it without anger or malice. He was amazingly thoughtful and considerate. One of my fondest memories is the help and encouragement he gave me in working out how I could take a 5-month old baby to an ONR conference in Santa Barbara in 1990 (when people did not take their babies to scientific conferences). He convinced me it was possible and assured me no one would mind. He was right, of course.
Eric WassermannOctober 19, 2016 at 5:22 pm
Nat was my mother, Hannah’s, younger brother. From what I heard, they grew up in a difficult and turbulent household. My mother was devoted to him. She more than once described to us how appealing he was as a very young child and how protective she felt at school and at home. She recalled the car on a hill whose brake he released and the teeth that got knocked out when it finally stopped. She told of his cousin Robert stuffing him into the dumbwaiter and delivering him to the kitchen. She described him as an adolescent, intense, irrepressible, and volubly obsessed with one thing after another. She spoke of his phenomenal appetite and, for the first time in his life, getting enough bacon when he was on kitchen duty in the army. Her affection was always clear in how she spoke to him and I think they remained very close until she was no longer able to communicate. With his passing, I have lost a remaining part of her and I mourn him partly on her behalf. If I believed in such things, it would be very comforting to think that they were together now.
I spent several weeks of every year with the Durlachs. I mean no disrespect to my own family in writing that the memories of those times are the happiest of my entire childhood. As David’s anecdotes illustrate, there was often something fascinating and perhaps more than faintly risky going on, usually involving the rapid release of large amounts of potential energy, but always justified in the name of empirical investigation. Nat seemed excited by the same things that fascinated us as kids and indulged our knucklehead schemes and inane amusements with amused patience. He took us out on the water and introduced me to sailing, which has been a lifelong passion. His own kids necessarily had a different experience, but for me, he guided, rarely corrected, seldom taught, never criticized. He had brilliant, unusual, friends and colleagues and a lab full of amazing apparatus designed to investigate great questions. To an over-talkative child, Nat was the rare adult who really seemed to listen and responded with unexpected observations. He was, in sum, the perfect uncle.
Later in life, especially when my wife was at MIT and we were living in the area, he became a generous friend, support, and role model. I learned Tadoma under Charlotte’s supervision to earn money when I was a medical student. He came to cognitive science colloquia wearing his trademark, snappy sport jackets, dark shirts, and mirrored sunglasses. The last, presumably so he could awake refreshed and ask incisive questions at the end. Before nodding off, he tried to crack Janell and me up by making very subtle faces. Antics aside, at this very early phase of my career, he provided a model of a scientist and academic leader that I have consciously tried to emulate on a modest scale.
I think Nat became more interested in people and relationships over the years. Perhaps it was just growing up, but our later conversations deepened and took on a more personal focus, especially as my mother’s health declined, and we became close in a way we hadn’t been before. À propos of this sad occasion, one of my later memories is of riding with Nat to the cemetery in in a cousin’s funeral cortege. His reaction to another line of somber, headlit, cars was to shout, “Hey!” and give a cheerful wave in fellowship. If, by some chance, they decide to plant me when I go, I so hope someone will have the exquisite sense of the absurd do something like that. Nat’s intelligence, deep gentleness and kindness, curiosity, pleasure in life, and, for better or worse most of all, his sense of humor, will always be part of me.
Rosalie M UchanskiOctober 19, 2016 at 9:33 pm
I remember Nat saying something to the effect: “Writing clearly requires clear thinking”. I think of this when I struggle with writing. It’s not the writing, usually, that is the limiting issue –it’s the THINKING before the writing that is lacking!
Richard SternOctober 21, 2016 at 4:58 pm
I first met Nat in the spring of 1969 as a junior in college after another professor had suggested that I talk to him about doing some psychoacoustical experiments to measure musical instrument timbres. While in retrospect I now recognize that at the time I was hopelessly naive and ignorant of everything that was important, Nat was incredibly warm and welcoming. He responded patiently to even the simplest (and stupidest) of questions and basically enabled me to get off the ground in a study that (as one of my other mentors put it) turned me from a mediocre student into a scholar. While my major mentor as a graduate student was Steve, Nat was always around and made himself freely available for advice on binaural hearing and all manner of general life issues. I continued to value his advice over the years. Nat will be remembered for sure for his intellectual brilliance and insight, but I will always remember him for his overwhelming humanity.
Frans A. BilsenOctober 22, 2016 at 11:17 am
My stay in 1971 at RLE-MIT and study on pitch perception with Julius Goldstein and Adrian Houtsma have been of immense importance for my further scientific career. Here the Dichotic Repetition Pitch was discovered, and I started thinking on the Central Spectrum. The discussions with the binaural colleagues, Nat Durlach and Steven Colburn, were a delight and of great value for our theortical thinking. I thankfully remember Nat’s enthousiasm, helpfulness, and his great human warmth.
Jean KrauseOctober 24, 2016 at 8:08 pm
Although I never got to work with Nat directly, I had the office next door for a number of years as a graduate student in the late 1990s. It was a great place to be. I will always value the friendly, insightful hallway banter and lunchroom conversation. His passing is great loss, for those who knew him and for those who never got the chance.
Kaigham J. GabrielOctober 27, 2016 at 11:12 am
He was such a wonderful and important part of my life. A true mentor and advisor. One of the sharpest intellects I’ve ever encountered; courageous in exploring new areas. Never afraid to show he didn’t understand something and if he was wrong, he was the first to laugh at himself (and laugh with gusto & tears rolling down his cheeks). Thanks Nat.
Pat ZurekOctober 28, 2016 at 3:36 pm
Nat was remarkable — so many admirable qualities packed into one person. He was generous, witty, considerate, and brilliant. What intellectual intensity and rigor and fun he brought to his scientific pursuits. I’m grateful to Nat for inviting me to join CBG in 1981. My life has been deeply enriched by knowing Nat and working with him all these years.
Thomas E. v. WiegandOctober 30, 2016 at 4:28 pm
In the spring of 1993 I received an invitation from Nat to visit the Sensory Communication Group (SEN, aka CBG) at MIT/RLE to apply for a post-doc working on his newly formed Virtual Environment Technology for Training (VETT) project. As this was a change in direction from my dissertation work in Visual Psychophysics, I had some fear at making such a change, but Nat insightfully put into perspective how this was an opportunity to broadly combine my interests in all of the senses, with my background in electronics and physics. My long collaboration with Nat was the most fortunate and important connection I have made in my life. Again and again through the years at his lab I would continue to be amazed at his intelligence, open mindedness, humor, and even equinamity, and through his example I learned so many things. I doubt I will ever again enjoy such a high level of project brainstorming as we all shared whenever we discussed reality, virtual or otherwise as we explored the early potentials and uses of “Virtual Reality.” I will always be grateful that we were colleagues and friends. Tom.
Jonathan PfautzNovember 2, 2016 at 12:24 am
DARPA Program Manager and Sensory Communication undergrad/grad student (’93-’96), post-doc (’00-02)
Nat taught me to aspire to a egoless existence (note that I “aspire” vs. “achieve”, and I know now that was part of the lesson all along). I recall so many meetings with Nat and others – ranging from myself as lowly grad student to full professors – where I was consistently and surprisingly treated as an equal. He told a story about hanging out with a bunch of other smart folks when he was younger (Minsky included), and how they’d sit around in silence, because no one thought they had something smart enough to say. I never felt like that in meetings with Nat. Nat’s intellectual egalitarianism became a model for not just my career, but the rest of my life – I learned never to make assumptions about where to expect the next great moment.
Nat also patiently tolerated the squeaks of my attempts-at-counter-culture leather trousers on industrial grade vinyl seat covers as we delved into deep discussions on experiment design, and happily considered the longer-range implications of what we were hoping to do (while trading off grandfatherly take-a-snooze moments with my other advisor, Dick Pew).
Nat also, without a hint of annoyance, would slowly red-line sentence after sentence of what I thought was the “perfect” introduction to a paper or proposal, then wrote carefully between my double-spaced printout, bringing not only a clarity of thought, but the right bigger-picture framing of what we hoped to achieve.
Nat simply handed over books or journals he thought would help my research, without a thought about having them returned. I still have many, treasured for their source, more than their content.
The futon in his office remains an inspiration – *of course*, we as humans, need to rest sometime, no matter how exciting of an intellectual journey we are on.
On another occasion, when I expressed concern that I was not “up to snuff” for a sponsor’s PI meeting because I lacked the “grey hair,” he jokingly mimed taking his own off and bestowing it upon my head.
However, I think my favorite part of expending some of my finite number of heartbeats around Nat is evidenced in one small moment: Sitting on a toilet at RLE, after handing off the latest version of a paper to Nat, I hear him enter, ask for me, and then very, very calmly, slide his red-lined edited hardcopy to me under the bathroom stall door.
Egolessness and devotion to the intellectual journey, indeed.
Adrianus J HoutsmaNovember 11, 2016 at 2:09 am
I felt very said when Tino Trahiotis called me to let me know that Nat had passed away. I have known Nat since the mid 60s when I entered MIT as a graduate student and chose Nat as my master thesis supervisor. I quickly learned to know him as a very kind and thoughtful person, very smart but never arrogant, and deeply involved in the progress of all his students. Our friendship and productive cooperation in research has lasted through almost my entire professional life that included 17 years in his research group at MIT, 20 years at the Technical University of Eindhoven, and 5 more years in a medical research laboratory of the US Army at Fort Rucker, AL. During my time in Holland we still met regularly at conferences and I spent a day with Nat’s research group every time I visited the Boston area. While in Alabama I still saw Nat regularly at Binaural Bashes in Boston and NATO research meetings in The Netherlands.
Nat was much more than an academic advisor and colleague. With deep appreciation I remember the many dinner parties in the Durlach home in Arlington where I learned to know Hansi and their two children. When David showed me his new collection of guinea pigs, I was honored to find out the next day that he had named one of them “Guinea Houtsma”. After I had developed an interest in downhill skiing, the Durlachs (they were all skiers) took me many times to Vermont and New Hampshire to sharpen my skills and to have lots of fun. At the occasion of my PhD graduation in 1971, when my parents came over from Holland, Nat and his family organized an unforgettable barbeque party for everyone. Needless to say that my parents were very impressed.
Nat remains in my memory as an example of academic excellence and humanitarian concern. We will miss him dearly.
Jayaganesh SwaminathanDecember 2, 2016 at 5:45 pm
I had the privilege of interacting with Nat when I was a postdoc at RLE. I will fondly remember Nat’s enthusiasm, cheerfulness and our interactions. Nat will be dearly missed by all of us.
Michael PichenyDecember 16, 2016 at 2:22 am
Nat was my PhD thesis advisor. He taught me the invaluable skill of how to think about a research problem. I learned from him to question all basic assumptions, never jump to conclusions, and to look at everything from multiple sides. He was firm, but also deeply caring. He even took me out driving when I was first learning (though I won’t blame my terrible driving habits on him). My image of Nat will always be him in a white shirt, smoking away while editing with a pencil what seemed to be an endless series of proposals. A true giant in the field has passed, we are all the lesser for it.
Zulfiquar HyderJanuary 2, 2017 at 6:19 am
It is with Good Grace that I received the news of Nat, little belated but none the less. I lost my father a few months back, and while I laid him to his grave with my own hand I did not feel crying. It occurred to me that it is only just a continuation in the great scheme of things. For Nat I feel the same now. We were all too friendly with Nat, but it was amazing how he maintained a fatherly affection and figure among us. He hired me to work for his little pet project “Presence”. After only ten minutes of interview he hired me to do the job. Eventually we own the best journal of the year award on our first year of publication. That’s one. The next was he asked me to talk to his eldest son David. And I actually gave him some time. Wish I could have continued with that. But that was Nat. always the fair and visionary when it comes to judging people. Also respectful. He allowed me to publish two special issues of Presence, on Architecture. Along with scientists and psychologists, Architects will also remember him for his timely judgement. My heartfelt sympathies and condolences for the surviving family.