Acoustical Society of America

Gold Medal Award


Georg von Békésy

It is interesting about medals. Sometimes the medal lends stature to the man; sometimes the man lends stature to the medal. No doubt the happiest conjunction of a man and a medal takes place when everybody takes such satisfaction in the award that he says to his neighbor, “That was the perfect choice of a medalist.”

This kind of happy conjunction is ours to enjoy today. The awarding the Gold Medal of our Society to Georg von Békésy, physicist, anatomist, physiologist, psychologist and experimenter extraordinary, gives every member a warm lift of heartfelt pride. We are proud that the Acoustical Society, in creating this award, has seen fit to provide for the celebration of excellence. We are proud that one of our number clearly merits our highest regard, and that the victories won by his artful contests with nature will forever lend luster to the Gold Medal of the Society.

Dr. Békésy is a scientist's scientist. He hunts out the beauties among the natural laws much as he searches the galleries for handsome pieces of early art, which he likes to exhibit in his laboratory to relieve the stark gleam of instruments that bristle with knobs and dials. And he is a scientist who stays on the job. Never, so far as I know, has he ever regarded the scientific quest as a springboard to some high function in the administrative overhead, where the tools of scientific inquiry are replaced by the shuffling of papers. His joy is in the beauty of discovered order, and the pleasure he feels in a newly revealed insight shows through in the style of his communications to his devoted readers. It was really nature that devised the intricate auditory transducer and buried it deep in the hardest bone in the human body, but with such adroit and skillful craft has Békésy bored into its recesses, and diagnosed its modes of action, that the modern ear seems almost as much a matter of Békésy's contrivance as it is of nature's patient evolution.

A special measure of pride in Dr. Békésy's achievements is enjoyed by those among us who for one reason or another have taken part in the upsurge of the research on hearing that began with the invention of the vacuum tube. My own delight in this Gold Medal Award is enhanced by the recollection of my first introduction to Békésy's work. When Hallowell Davis and I were planning the writing of a book on hearing, a quarter of a century ago, it became clear that many of its pages would go to the reporting of some new and startling experiments described in papers that issued in a steady stream from a far-off place. When, in 1937, it became plain that we would need to refer more often to the work of Békésy than to the work of any other man, we decided that one of us had better go abroad to check first hand on the source of these revelations.

E. B. Newman and I undertook the journey. I remember the streetcar ride to the end of the line on the outskirts of Budapest and the walk down a wide dusty road to an imposing building that housed the research space of the Hungarian Telephone System. Dr. Békésy received us with what I would call “careful cordiality.” I am sure it was not at all plain to him that those two brash Americans meant business. But Newman carried on in German, explaining some of our work to Békésy and asking about his, until, when it came time to leave, we were granted permission to return the next morning.

The next day was full of eager discussion and the showing of much apparatus. When it finally ended Békésy suggested that the following morning (Saturday) we should join him for a tour of Buda—which ended with a luncheon in a famous old restaurant in Pest. I recall that Newman and I expressed an interest in goulash and got a vast assortment of them. We learned that goulash is a generic term. And for desert we had corn on the cob, a specialty of the house. Little could we foresee on that happy occasion the troubled events and changes that were to follow.

Through all the upheavals and distractions of the intervening years, the constancy of Békésy's devotion to his research has impressed all who know him. The 25 papers reviewed in the Stevens and Davis book on Hearing (1938) turned out to be only the beginning of a long series of distinguished contributions. Like all dedicated investigators, Békésy goes wherever his problem leads him. Sometimes we find him developing basic tools—probes, drills, micromanipulators, microscopic scissors, phase-control circuits, or stroboscopes. At other times he pursues the secrets of anatomy, builds working models of the ear, or records electrical potentials across delicate membranes. And when the principles he is trying to establish can be clarified more easily in some other sense modality, he may turn to psychophysical experiments on the eye or the skin.

A fortunate event for all of us was the publication last year of most of Békésy's papers, translated, edited, and arranged with consummate care by E. G. Wever. This book, Experiments in Hearing runs to some 750 pages and constitutes the definitive Békésy—as of about 1958.

How did Békésy, a physicist, become interested in the human senses? He tells us that it all started when an economist asked him whether a major improvement in the quality of communication systems could be expected in the near future. This question, Békésy could see, entailed a further question: how much better is the ear than the telephone system? That was a good question—at least for a start—and we all know now Békésy glued tiny mirrors to the eardrum and recorded its response to sharp impulses, and how he pursued the problem relentlessly into the inner ear itself, where he recorded and measured the traveling wave as it sweeps along the basilar membrane and damps itself out near the helicotrema.

No one, I dare say, knows more about the ear than the man whom we honor this day with the Gold Medal of the Acoustical Society. No one, therefore, has a greater appreciation of the many mysteries and obdurate puzzles that remain to be solved. Those of us who share the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory with Dr. Békésy, and who are privileged to witness at first hand the masterful touch of a gifted experimenter, find ourselves convinced that many novel and exciting disclosures are yet to issue from his dedicated pursuit of truth.

S. S. Stevens, Director
Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory
Harvard University

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