Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Digital Artist Stops World Plague

I thought it would be good to continue to provide you with a few short pieces to indicate the range of what I intend for this blog. I hope you will find these pieces interesting. Gradually, I will introduce new commentaries, but for now I will use some favorite sections from a few things I have already written. The following article is based on a fictional account of a world plague that appeared in a Wired magazine supplement in 1995 -- linked to an editorial that appeared in Science magazine in 2000. I was fascinated by the idea that a highly visual person using visualization technologies could make a major discovery without really understanding what he was doing. As Albert Einstein pointed out, sometimes it is very useful not to know too much.

“The future of humanity and microbes likely will unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be titled Our Wits Versus Their Genes.” -- Dr. Joshua Lederberg, Science magazine, 2000

From an imaginary interview in the Wired story --

“Our initial hope was to find some weakness in [the] Mao [plague virus] that we could exploit. But what we found scared the living daylights out of us. . . . What we discovered [was that] . . . in hours, it converted the entire immune system into an ally. We were devastated. [But in time we realized that] we had the human genome nailed, and we had the Mao genome nailed. And we had that marvelous [broadband Internet virtual reality] system for communicating among scientific minds. We used the system to design a new human killer T-cell -- the Mao [plague virus] Killer T. . . .
“How did you do that?

“Actually, it wasn't me; that was Javier's idea.

“But I thought Javier was a graphic designer, not a scientist.

“Which is probably why he cracked it, and we didn't. He worked out the simulation routines that showed how [the] Mao [virus] did the cell intrusion and subversion. And he became fascinated with membrane geometry, not knowing anything about protein electrochemistry or synthesis. For him it was just a graphics puzzle, and he played around with the simulations until he found a surface that would turn the probe back on itself. All we'd asked him to do was modify the program. . . . We thought . . . he would just create a simple command. Instead, he solved the problem of armoring, because if you can simulate it, you can order it up in wetware. When we saw the demo, the [lab] went silent. Absolute silence for perhaps 30 seconds. Then everybody started talking frantically.”

-- Interview excerpt from the story “Savior of the Plague Years 1996-2020,” Wired Scenarios, 1995

Our Wits Versus Their Genes

It is our wits against their genes--and their fast evolution. And it will always be so.

We now understand that we can never live without the microbes. We used to think they were the enemy. Now we can see clearly that they are essential supports for our lives and our world. Finally, we have learned to think more in terms of ecology than warfare, interdependence rather than elimination. Yet we now also know that we can never stop finding new ways to protect ourselves from their occasional pathological outbreaks (and, worse, our own stupidity). We can never adapt through our own genes as quickly as they can--so, we must find other ways. We must use our wits and we must learn to use all the different kinds of cleverness and inventiveness that we have among us. And we can never stop.

When I read Joshua Lederberg's wonderful short essay in Science on how we have come to understand the fundamental nature of infectious disease, I was immediately reminded of the Wired short science fiction story excerpted above. This story has stayed with me, recurring to mind from time to time, since I first read it years ago. A good test of a good piece. I thought there might be a special connection between the two that would be of interest to those who know something about the near-term and longer-term prospects for computer graphics.

Initially, it is a bold and almost silly idea--the world being saved by a digital artist--during a fictional time of global plague where small surviving colonies were linked by a diminished but still functioning Internet. Yet, the way the story is told, the idea gained unexpected credibility. And behind the story there is a greater question and possibly a deeper understanding--one that we have been dealing with for some time in its various aspects.

That is, of course, does the skill, the technology, the kind of mind and the special experience of the digital artist actually lend itself distinctly to solving certain kinds of problems better than others? And might these solutions (one day) have unexpectedly broad impact? Perhaps we have a short story here that could be making a statement that has greater weight than many volumes of science or policy or procedure. Considering the enduring importance of the topic, it would appear that it could be of special interest to many beyond the comparatively small world of computer graphics. And, considering the more recent history since 2000 of global threats from SARS, anthrax, mad cow disease and bird flu, it would seem that all of us would have a deeper and more enduring interest.

Just a Graphics Puzzle

I had long admired the Wired Scenarios story because it seemed to capture in a few words (and provocatively doctored photographs), my own long-held belief--that the visual approach has a special power for seeing patterns and solving problems which is not properly or fully appreciated. Too often, it is assumed that what is wanted is to know a lot of facts and to recall them quickly and accurately, on demand. The training and selection for most of our professions, from law to medicine, is based mainly on this narrow idea.

However, the literature on creativity has long observed that the most important thing is seeing the big patterns and seeing the unexpected connections and novel solutions. For this, it is often the outsider who has the advantage of seeing the unexpected pattern what the well-trained professionals within the field somehow miss. The story of the less than fully trained and less than fully informed outsider making the big discovery is in fact a commonplace in the history of science.

By his own report, as we have already noted, Albert Einstein relied more on his mental images than the kinds of mathematics used by his associates. Indeed, as we have noted, as Einstein became a better mathematician, several have argued that his creativity became considerably diminished, as his approach became more mathematical (more conventional) and less visual (less original). It is striking that this pattern was noted separately both by the physicist Richard Feynman and the scientist and author Abraham Pais.

One mathematician of Einstein’s own era, David Hilbert, a great admirer of Einstein's work, came close himself to some of the early basic insights involved in general relativity. Yet Hilbert did not claim any share of Einstein's major accomplishment. However, he did make clear, with no small amount of exaggeration, that Einstein's ideas came from other places than his mathematical skill. “Every boy on the streets of Göttingen,” he said, “understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, in spite of that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.”

I was pleased to see the authors of the Wired story acknowledge these observations. But I was even more pleased to see them focus on the skills and approach of a computer graphics artist--one who saw the solution to the disease process as “just a graphics puzzle” involving “membrane geometry.” Since (in the story) they were all using virtual reality (VR) simulations of the microbes, he could visualize directly the various structures. Because of the VR images, he did not have to rely on years of training and experience to build a crude personal mental image of what was going on at the surface of the molecule.

It is quite easy to imagine that someday soon discoveries such as this may be routinely expected with powerful graphic computers and as that high-quality VR and high bandwidth Internet connections have become more and more widely available. With such technological developments, a lot of previously unrecognized talent could come quickly and unexpectedly into play. In the end, of course, you need both the experts and the outsiders. You also need a large and varied team with many kinds of training and native talents in order to find solutions as well as implement remediation programs. In the not too distant future, with the widespread use of new visualization technologies, perhaps we will all grow to have a greater appreciation of what each person, and each kind of brain, can bring to such a problem, whether in medicine or other areas.

Around the World in 80 Hours

In his Science essay, Dr. Lederberg, pointed out that in our competition with microbes many of our recent technical and economic advances play right into the strengths of the fast-adapting, tiny creatures. We live longer and world population grows, doubling twice in the last century, fostering “new vulnerabilities.” There is greater crowding, making disease transmission between individuals easier. Continued destruction of forests brings greater contact with disease-carrying animals and insects. Increased freedom in travel and trade further compound these problems. “Travel around the world,” he says, “can be completed in less than 80 hours (compared to the 80 days of Jules Verne's 19th-century fantasy), constituting a historic new experience.”

Everywhere this long-distance travel has become frequent and routine: “Well over a million passengers, each one a potential carrier of pathogens, travel daily by aircraft to international destinations. International commerce, especially in foodstuffs, only adds to the global traffic of potential pathogens and vectors [carriers]. Because the transit times of people and goods are now so short compared to the incubation times of disease, carriers of disease can arrive at their destination before the danger they harbor is detectable, reducing health quarantine to a near absurdity.”

Dr. Lederberg also points out that when it comes to the pathological development of microbes, we may be our own worst enemies. He observes that “the darker corner of microbiological research is the abyss of maliciously designed biological warfare (BW) agents and systems to deliver them. What a nightmare for the next millennium! What's worse, for the near future, technology is likely to favor offensive BW weaponry. . . .” The events of years since 2000 have, of course, made Dr. Lederberg’s words even more troubling.

Brilliant Flashes

Consequently, in the long run as well as the short run, we can see that it is indeed our wits against their genes. And it will always be so. Mostly, as Dr. Lederberg explains, we now see that microbes are essential supports for our lives and our world. They are everywhere--and mostly they are on our side, more or less. However, we do need to be aware that in spite of medical successes and a wiser understanding of ecological perspectives, that serious problems probably lie ahead.

We know more, but our economic and political successes may create enormous future problems. However, we may take some heart in expecting that the spread of new visualization technologies (among other things) may help to promote a more comprehensive view of our whole situation--promoting strong visual thinkers to make wiser decisions about the future for us all. And, with some luck, we may learn to explicitly appreciate the full value of digital artists (and those like them)--and their real life potential to be true global heros if the worst were to happen.

While we have learned to think more in terms of ecology than warfare, we all now know that we can never stop searching for new ways to protect ourselves. We can never adapt through our own genes as quickly as the microbes can. We must find other ways. So, we have to use our wits and we must learn to use all the different kinds of cleverness and inventiveness that we have among us--especially among those who might be best suited to seeing patterns and structures that might be missed by the experts. We need to search a broader field with greater success. Because we can never stop.

From Thinking Like Einstein, Chapter 5, “When the World Plague Was Stopped by a Digital Artist.”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts

The Second Edition of In the Mind’s Eye is to come out in July 2009. I began the new Epilogue with the story of the late William J. Dreyer of the California Institute of Technology who, after reading the book, called me one day. I thought you might be interested in his words and part of his story:

“I knew I was different in the way that I thought, but I didn’t realize why I was so dumb at spelling . . . and rote memory and arithmetic. . . . The first time I realized how different . . . brains could be . . . was when I bumped into Jim Olds at a dinner party back in the late sixties. Jim . . . was a professor here [at Caltech] . . . famous for his pleasure center work. . . . A speaker talked about the way we think and compared it to holography. Jim was across the table from me. I said, ‘Oh, yes. When I’m inventing an instrument or whatever, I see it in my head and I rotate it and try it out and move the gears. If it doesn’t work, I rebuild it in my head.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t see a thing in my head with my eyes closed.’ We spent the rest of the evening . . . trying to figure out how two professors -- both obviously gifted people at Caltech in the Biology Division -- could possibly think at all, because we were so different. So then I took this up with Roger Sperry [Nobel Laureate and near lab neighbor] and I realized that I had some amazing shortcomings as well as some amazing gifts.”

Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts

This passage is excerpted from the oral history project at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The speaker is the late William J. Dreyer, Ph.D., who is increasingly coming to be recognized as one of the major innovators in the early days of the biotech revolution that is now washing over all of us. In September 2007, one of his inventions was placed in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. -- the first gas-phase automated protein sequencer, which he patented in 1977. The sign over the machine on exhibit reads: “The Automated Gas-Phase Protein Sequencer: William J. Dreyer and the Creation of a New Technology.”

A strong visual thinker and dyslexic, Dreyer developed new ways of thinking about molecular biology. With his powerful visual imagination, he could somehow see the molecules interacting with each other. Sometimes he was almost entirely alone. He (with his colleague J. Claude Bennett) advanced new ideas based on new data about how genes recombine themselves to create the immune system. These ideas turned out to be 12 years ahead of their time. Most did not like this new theory because it conflicted with the conventional beliefs held by most expects in the field at the time. “It was so counter to the dogma of the time that nobody believed it,” his widow, Janet Dreyer explained to me. Dreyer’s approach also used a form of scientific investigation (peptide mapping) with which most immunologists were unfamiliar. “Knowing what we know now pretty much any biologist would look at Bill’s data and say that is what it has to mean. But few could understand it then,” she noted. However, gradually, they all learned to think the way Dreyer thought. Then, it was obvious that Dreyer (and Bennett) had to be right.

In his earlier school days, Dreyer had the usual difficulties experienced by dyslexics who are also very bright. In college and graduate school he began to find roles that that made use of his strengths while he learned to get help in his areas of weakness. He joined a study group. The others in the group all took careful notes in the lectures. He took no notes. He just sat there while he listened and observed carefully. Then after the lecture, they provided him with the detailed data, and he told them what it all meant. “He was giving the big picture and all the major concepts, . . .” explained Janet Dreyer. Eventually, surviving a major life threatening illness made him realize it was time to refocus his life -- and then his fascination with the laboratory work began to draw him in.

To See What Others Cannot See

Soon, the young Bill Dreyer became a star in the laboratory. While in graduate school in Seattle, and while working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, he could tell his professors and colleagues which were the best experiments to do. Somehow he knew how to proceed and where to go in this brand new field of study that came to be known as protein chemistry. His professors and section heads would write the grants, get the funding and write the papers for him based on his ideas and observations. “The money just came. Because he was doing good work, grants would just be there for him,” observed Janet Dreyer. He was happy at NIH but eventually (after a previous offer had been refused) in 1963 Caltech persuaded Dreyer to come to Pasadena as a full professor at the age of 33. Clearly, the value of his pioneering work had been recognized.

However, later, because of the further development of his heretical ideas, William Dreyer could not get funding from academic or foundation sources for inventing his new instruments. His department head would get irate phone calls from professors from other institutions complaining about Dreyer’s publications and talks. He gave many talks at the time, making some attendees angry, although some could see the importance of his innovative perceptions. “He was on the lecture circuit then and he [gave these talks] a lot.” Of course, these were not really unproven theories, explained his widow Janet. She pointed out that Dreyer was sure of his ground because he had the data to prove the veracity of his ideas. “It was not merely a hypothesis in that paper, it was real data.” However, it was data in a form so new and so alien that almost everyone in the field could not understand what he was talking about. In time, these professors, and all their students, came to see, much later, that William Dreyer had been right all along.

Because he could not get funding from the usual sources, Dreyer went to private companies to manufacture his instruments -- something quite unusual and discouraged at the time but now wildly popular among universities hoping for a share of large royalty payments. Seeing the potential for his inventions (and their scientific impact) but having a hatred of administration and corporate politics, Dreyer came to be, as he told me, the “idea man” for seven new biotech companies (including Applied Biosystems). . . . . Years later, when Susumu Tonegawa was awarded a Nobel Prize (Physiology or Medicine, 1987) for work he had done in Switzerland, his innovative sequencing work proved (through experiments that were illegal in the US at the time) that Dreyer and his colleague had been correct in their predictions many years earlier.

From the Epilogue to In the Mind’s Eye, Second Edition, 2009.

Churchill's Blank Wall

Because our parents had met at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in the early 1930s, my brother and I grew up in a household with paint boxes, half finished canvases and the smell of linseed oil. Given this background, I was surprised to discover that one of the best descriptions of the painter’s eye I had ever read or heard was written by Sir Winston Churchill. I found it while I was doing research for In the Mind’s Eye -- so I put it in the book. Even though I first read Churchill's words many years ago, I think of them often -- and always when I try to see reflected colors on a blank white wall in full sun. Below, I will insert a brief passage:

But these shreds of evidence are as nothing compared to the passionate love of painting described by Churchill in “Painting As A Pastime.” The essay title belies its content. We are not given, as the title would suggest, the idle musings of a hobbyist dabbler in semi-retirement. On the contrary, we are given, instead, the ardent passion of one who has discovered, before it is too late, a fresh new love in his middle years. This new passion draws on such deep resources and reserves that one can only guess that these great engines of refined and skillful observation had previously had some other object in other facets of a rich and energetic life. He explains:

“One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object in it, one never noticed before. And this is a tremendous new pleasure and interest which invests every walk or drive with an added object. So many colours on the hillside, each different in shadow and in sunlight; such brilliant reflections in the pool, each a key lower than what they repeat. . . . I found myself instinctively as I walked noting the tint and character of a leaf, . . . the exquisite lacery of winter branches, the dim pale silhouettes of far horizons. And I had lived for over forty years without ever noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, 'What a lot of people!' I think this heightened sense of observation of Nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint. . . .

“Once you begin to study it, all Nature is equally interesting and equally charged with beauty. I was shown a picture by Cézanne of a blank wall of a house, which he had made distinct with the most delicate lights and colours. Now I often amuse myself when I am looking at a wall or a flat surface of any kind by trying to distinguish all the different colours and tints which can be discerned upon it, and considering whether these arise from reflections or from natural hue. You would be astonished the first time you tried this to see how many and what beautiful colours there are even in the most commonplace objects, and the more carefully and frequently you look the more variations do you perceive.”

From In the Mind’s Eye, 1991, 1997, pages 163-164.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

In the Mind's Eye for Four

“. . . Faraday, in his mind's eye, saw lines of force traversing all space where the mathematicians saw centres of force attracting at a distance: Faraday saw a medium where they saw nothing but distance: Faraday sought the seat of the phenomena in real actions going on in the medium, they were satisfied that they had found it in a power of action at a distance impressed on the electric fluids.” James Clerk Maxwell, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, 1891, pp. ix-x.

“In examining the influences of gravitation on light, he declared, making another breach in Newtonian physics, that a light ray undergoes a deviation in proportion to the gravitation, so that it acquires the shape of a parabola. He wrote this from his desk--perhaps he looked up at an exceptionally bright night sky as he did so, perhaps his eyes remained fixed on his paper, but it wouldn't have mattered: there was a picture of the star-studded sky in his mind's eye. By thought alone . . . he established the laws that govern this inaccessible world.” Antonina Vallentin, The Drama of Albert Einstein, 1954, p. 55.

“We think that the same mind's eye that can justly survey and appraise and prescribe beforehand the values of a truly great picture in one all-embracing regard, in one flash of simultaneous and homogeneous comprehension, would also . . . be able to pronounce with sureness upon any other high activity of the human intellect." Winston Churchill, "Painting As A Pastime," in Thoughts and Adventures, 1932, p. 312.

“In the mind's eye, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity.” James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, 1987, p. 98.


Welcome to "In the Mind's Eye, Dyslexic Renaissance" -- a new web log that will focus on news and issues related to individuals who think in pictures and have trouble with words. These are people who have lots of trouble in their early schooling but often can be highly successful in life and work --  especially when they are able to use their highly developed visual talents linked to the newest information visualization technologies. The "In the Mind's Eye" part of our title comes from the title to my first book, which will be released in a new edition in July 2009. (We found that a Canadian group was already using the phase "In the Mind's Eye" by itself.) The "Dyslexic Renaissance" part was invented by my son Ben who started using the term some six months ago to indicate the rebirth of interest in the distinctive talents exhibited by many dyslexics.  I plan to include in the blog a series of informal, topical commentaries along with longer, more formal articles -- and a variety of visual and graphical materials. Please feel free to comment and participate. With all best wishes, Thomas G. West