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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