Neuroscientist Irving Biederman explored the brain’s role in vision, including shape and face recognition
From the living room of the high-rise Marina Del Rey, California, apartment he shared with his girlfriend of the last three decades, Irving Biederman loved to gaze out the window and take in the gorgeous views of Mother’s Beach, sometimes using binoculars to view the boats and waters beyond.
It was one of the few luxuries the Harold Dornsife Chair in Neurosciences and professor of psychology and computer sciences indulged in when he wasn’t immersed in his lifelong passions of research and learning about whatever he could in and outside of his specialty, said Kathleen Bonfond, who met him at a party in the early 1990s. Bonfond was with Biederman hours before he died in a care facility on Aug. 17 at age 83.
Biederman, a Brooklyn native, was regarded as a giant in the field of the brain’s role in vision, including shape, object, and scene and face recognition.
Taking in the big picture also was one of his strengths as an academic, colleagues say, and his passing leaves a big hole in the Department of Psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“He was very much driven by the seeking of truth and knowledge and how to see the big picture,” said Laura Baker, professor of psychology. “He was probably one of our most illustrious faculty members at USC, and without question my favorite colleague. He brought our department to another level.
“He was a force. A powerhouse. I can’t believe he’s gone. I thought he’d always be here.”
Another colleague, Professor of Psychology Antoine Bechara, praised Biederman for his versatile intelligence.
“I know many people can be experts in their own field and they can ask tough questions in their field of specialty, but Irv was universal,” said Bechara, who chairs USC Dornsife’s psychology department. “Whenever an invited speaker gave a talk, irrespective of the topic, Irv always stood up and asked intriguing questions. I’ve rarely witnessed a scholar as versatile in their knowledge like Irv.”
A true ‘infovore’
Son Eric Biederman, 52, said his father was an “infovore” with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
“There was nothing he didn’t want to learn,” he said.
For example, Irv Biederman ended up becoming an expert witness on youth diving accidents, and he once determined how long it would take to train a layperson to be able to tell the sex of a newborn chick by examining its cloaca.
“This is a guy who would rather do research than breathe,” Eric said. “It was the first thing he thought about when he woke up in the morning. It was his world and his identity, and he just loved it.”
Biederman started doing lab research in his late teens at Brooklyn College.
After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1966, he went to State University of New York at Buffalo, where he held various professor positions in the Department of Psychology from 1971 to 1987.
Biederman then went to the University of Minnesota, where he was the Fesler-Lampert Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Sciences from 1987 to 1991.
“For a guy that smart,” Eric quipped, “he moved to the one place in the country that had worse weather than Buffalo.”
Gerald Davison, professor of psychology and gerontology, was the department chair when Biederman was heavily recruited to USC Dornsife in 1991.
“He was a really smart guy — super smart,” Davison said. “Whenever I chatted with him, I always learned something.
“He was someone who loved biology, science and psychology, and he was a real intellectual and a good scientist and very productive. He added luster to our department and to the entire university.”
As director of the Image Understanding Lab, Biederman concentrated on how a scene, object or face can be recognized in a fraction of a second — even if an image had never been encountered before. He and his lab colleagues also probed the neural basis of perceptual and cognitive pleasure, based on a gradient of opioid receptors in the same pathway by which image understanding is achieved.
Biederman hated wasting time.
“Dinner parties were his hell,” Eric said.
And although he served on numerous USC committees, he refused to take on an official administrative role in the department because he thought it would take him away from his research, Baker said.
A nurturing person
Very confident in his vast library of knowledge, Biederman could come off as arrogant to some, but he had a sweet and nurturing nature, colleagues say.
“His quest for excellence sometimes rubbed people the wrong way,” Baker said. “But in some ways, he was a great big teddy bear who had a sense of jolliness about him.”
Biederman’s girlfriend Bonfond said he was very easy to live with.
“He wasn’t a hard person,” she said. “He was very driven in his profession, but his demeanor was not hard.”
Biederman tended to the plants in the couple’s apartment. “He was a very nurturing person,” said Bonfond.
Biederman’s nurturing nature extended to his countless students and post-doctoral researchers, many of whom now are prominent scholars around the world.
In 2019, on his 80th birthday, Biederman’s former students held an “Irv-fest” in his honor at USC. One came all the way from Germany and another from Israel.
“That speaks a lot about how much Irv was admired and respected,” Bechara noted.
Baker and Biederman often had lunch together in the USC dining halls.
Biederman loved food — especially the unpretentious variety of choices at the USC Village Dining Hall, as well as his homecooked meals in Marina Del Rey.
“Spaghetti and meatballs were his favorite,” said Bonfond, who brought him flowers and balloons on his birthday, Aug. 4 — 13 days before he died.
Baker recalls a conversation with her friend and colleague.
“Irv, when do you think you’ll retire?” she asked him.
“I’ll never retire,” he replied.
Knowing his prodigious mind was working robustly, as usual, nearly to the end, Baker said: “I guess he got his wish.”
Biederman is survived by girlfriend Bonfond; son Eric; ex-wife Patricia, who was married to him for 20 years and a friend for 30 more; a granddaughter, Alexandra, 7; an older brother, Arthur; two nephews; and one grandnephew.
Memorial services are pending.
But loved ones say to expect another Irv-fest.