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Marvin Lee Minsky

On August 9, 1927 in New York City, Marvin Lee Minsky was born to Dr. Henry Minsky, an eye surgeon, and Fannie Resier, an active participant in the Zionist movement. At an early age he developed an interest in science, a characteristic that was encouraged at the private schools he attended as a child. Nevertheless, after high school he joined the United States Navy. Following his two years of service, Minsky entered Harvard University, where he pursued a variety of subjects, including psychology, physics, neurophysiology, and mathematics. After graduation in 1950, he transferred to Princeton University to pursue his doctorate in mathematics and during his first year there he constructed the first neural network simulator. Subsequent to receiving his PhD in 1954, he revisited Harvard, but this time as part of the renowned group of scholars known as the Society of Fellows.

Minsky’s new status at Harvard University provided him with an increased opportunity to engage in his own research and it was at this time that he made his primary contribution to the field of optics. Extremely interested in the inner workings of the mind and at odds with many dominant psychological theories regarding the matter, Minsky desired to examine images of neural networks in unstained samples of live brains. However, contemporary microscopes were not well equipped to handle such a project, spurring Minsky to invent his own instrument to meet his research needs. The result was the confocal scanning microscope, which he first produced in 1955.

The basic premise of the confocal approach is the use of spatial filtering to eliminate out-of-focus light in specimens that are thicker than the plane of focus. In his original design, Minsky utilized a pinhole placed in front of a zirconium arc source as the point source of light. The light was focused by a microscope objective at the preferred focal plane in the specimen, and light that passed through was focused by a second objective lens at a second pinhole confocal to (having the same focus) the first pinhole. Any light that traveled through the second pinhole struck a low-noise photomultiplier, which produced a signal that correlated to the intensity of the light from the specimen. The second pinhole barred light originating from above or below the plane of focus in the specimen from arriving at the photomultiplier. To build an image, the focused spot of light was scanned across the specimen. However, a real image was not formed in Minsky's original configuration, but instead the output from the photomultiplier was translated into an image on the screen of a military surplus long persistence oscilloscope.

Despite the theoretical benefits of the confocal approach for biological purposes, Minsky’s microscope originally generated little interest. In hindsight it has become apparent that the technology of the period limited Minsky’s demonstration of the potential of the confocal approach. Yet, years later, with the advent of such applicable devices as lasers, sensitive low-noise photodetectors, and fast microcomputers with image processing capabilities, Minsky’s microscopy method has generated a significant amount of use. Modern confocal scanning microscopes are, however, based on a reflected light version of the instrument that used a single objective lens and a dichromatic mirror assembly that Minsky described in his writings, although it was not the basis of his original instrument design.

Following his three-year stint at Harvard, Minsky embarked upon a long career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he co-founded the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1959 and quickly developed into one of the world leaders in the emerging field. For his efforts, he was made Donner Professor of Science in 1974 followed in 1990 by his acceptance of the Toshiba professorship of Media Arts and Sciences. Minsky has written several works, including the popular, but highly controversial The Society of Mind (1987), and received a great number of prestigious awards, including the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery (1970), the Japan Prize (1990), the Rank Prize from the Royal Society of Medicine (1995), and the R.W. Wood Prize from the Optical Society of America (2001). He continues to hold a professorship at MIT, though he has apparently spent an increasing amount of time carrying out independent research and further developing his own theories of the human mind.


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