Saturday, July 4, 2009

Dyslexic Discoveries: James Lovelock

I was really surprised and amazed, indeed, shocked. I had been reading things by and about James Lovelock since the 1970s. But I had no idea that there would be an explicit connection between him and creativity among dyslexics. Indeed, on the Summer Solstice, Father’s Day, the 21st of June, not long ago, it happened that Lovelock gave a talk and signed books at our local bookstore, Politics and Prose, here in northwest Washington, D.C.

Shortly afterward, I was browsing the new website “Dyslexic Advantage” recently put together by Fernette and Brock Eide, physicians with a clinic near Seattle, Washington state. This new site skillfully blends video clips with a few lines of text, often with little commentary. The videos relate to an individual’s accomplishments and may or may not include references to dyslexia. The text is usually quoted from biographies or autobiographies, providing evidence of dyslexia or similar learning problems.

I quickly noted that this is a wonderful combination, especially accessible for dyslexic children and adults who need to have real evidence of what dyslexics have done and perhaps a bit about how they have done it. I browsed several stories on the website and then noted a reference to James Lovelock. An excellent interview with Lovelock had been selected summarizing his main ideas and the controversies that these ideas have yielded over the years (among many unwanted but often accurate predictions). But then I was shocked to read the following text just below the video clip on the website:

“ ‘I’m dyslexic and hopeless at arithmetic, but nowadays I love maths as computers do all the hard arithmetic chores.’ -- James Lovelock

“Dyslexic inventor of the electron capture detector, James Lovelock is now known best for his work as an environmentalist and creator of the Gaia Hypothesis. This video is an interview with Lovelock about his environmental work.

“Interview with Lovelock where he talks about his school history:”

In the story in the Independent (a London newspaper), we see brief examples of Lovelock being able to learn much from hands-on lab work--combined with long hours of boring war work (fire watching while at the National Institute of Medical Research in London during World War II) where a future Nobel Prize winner, doing the same duty, gave him a “brain dump” of all that he knew (in reality, we see here a treasure of interactive, individualized instruction, so well suited to a bright and intensely curious dyslexic mind).

But there is more: Very recently, I was putting together ideas for a chapter in an upcoming book on dyslexia and creativity. While searching for a quotation from Michael Faraday in my own chapter on creativity in In the Mind’s Eye, I chanced upon a long endnote that somehow I had totally forgotten about:

“A major recurring theme in the history of science is that some new ideas are unacceptable to conventional modes of thought. Sometimes the problem is that the ideas are not really perceived as being new. It is assumed that what is important is already known and well understood.

“A current example of this sort of problem is the theory of atmospheric chemistry known as the ‘Gaia Hypothesis.’ The theory has been advanced since the late 1960s by the British scientist and instrument designer James Lovelock, with others. The basic idea is that the kinds and amounts of gases in the earth's atmosphere are regulated mainly by microbial life. If certain gases, like oxygen and methane, were not being constantly produced [by living things], they would be expected to combine with each other, making the proportions of these gases in the uncombined state much less prevalent. Consequently, Lovelock argued that life can be detected on a planet [at great distance] through the makeup of its atmosphere alone--that is, [the presence of] life can detected through atmospheric measurements.

“ . . . Lynn Margulis, [who worked with Lovelock for a time, years ago,] indicated that it was some time before even she was able to understand the full significance of Lovelock's still controversial ideas. . . . Margulis noted that some time ago Lovelock ‘couldn't get anyone to understand what he was saying. I know,’ she said, ‘because I worked with him for two years before I could understood it. . . . It's not his fault. It's not my fault. It was just that he was coming up with something very new. What we tended to hear was what we had heard before. Oh, we would say, we know all about that already--which is just the response you are getting today from today's academics. [But] it's a genuinely original idea.’

“There are further possible reasons for the continuing resistance to Lovelock's approach--ones that touch on the familiar problems of [over] specialization and definition of professional domain. According to Margulis: ‘If this kind of analysis is correct, then atmospheric chemists will have to know something about microbiology. And even worse, microbiologists will have to know something about atmospheric chemistry. . . .’ Many specialists are not enthusiastic, in part perhaps, because ‘they are going to have to re-educate’ themselves, which many do not wish to do--making for ‘a real problem.’ ”

At the book signing at Politics and Prose, I had given Lovelock a hastily prepared note (along with a copy of Thinking Like Einstein and sections from my new epilogue for the second edition of In the Mind’s Eye), thanking him for his research, books and talks--also noting how much his career as an independent scientist would appear to have followed Einstein’s advice that to do deep science one needs to remain apart as much as possible from the “battle of the brains” in conventional scientific careers.

Clearly, there is much more to be investigated about how it came to be that an independent dyslexic scientist has been able to both design instruments that have been able to make minute measurements that sparked global awareness of one global problem (CFCs) and now is willing to make unpopular and controversial predictions about another global problem (one much more difficult to understand and control). Even those who disagree with Lovelock’s observations and assessments would acknowledge that he has brought us to think deeply about important issues. He now thinks that global warming is proceeding more rapidly that the experts expected and he wonders whether it is already too late to reverse the accelerating trends. He hopes that he may be wrong. But if he is right, we will know in a decade or two.

The endnote quoted is from In the Mind’s Eye, chapter 8, “Patterns in Creativity,” note 20, p. 328 in the 1997 edition; original source quoted: Lynn Margulis, “Rethinking Evolution,” Smithsonian Institution talk, April 23, 1990. The new Lovelock book is The Vanishing Face of Gaia (Basic Books, 2009). The publisher gave the subtitle: “Final Warning.” During his recent talk, Lovelock noted that his own preferred subtitle had been: “Enjoy It While You Can.” The front cover of the book carries the quotation: “ ‘James Lovelock will go down in history as the scientist who changed our view of the Earth’-- John Gray, Independent (UK).” For material on James Lovelock from website “Dyslexic Advantage,” see: