Thursday, September 9, 2010

Part 1, Nikola Tesla, Thinking in Pictures and Asperger Syndrome

“When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever; the results were the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception.”

Initially, Nikola Telsa was of special interest for us because of his extraordinarily powerful visual imagination. As he says, his imagination appears to have been so highly developed that he could create complete models of devices in his mind, building them and running them as if they were real (My Inventions, 1919). But it is probably of no small consequence that he seems to have experienced, initially, this powerful ability to visualize things not as a useful talent or wonderful gift but instead as a problem.

An Unusual Affliction

Tesla explains: “In my boyhood I suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, often accompanied by strong flashes of light, which marred the sight of real objects and interfered with my thought and action.” He makes clear that although these images were powerful in their projection, not hallucinations. “They were pictures of things and scenes which I had really seen, never of those I had imagined. When a word was spoken to me the image of the object it designated would present itself vividly to my vision and sometimes I was quite unable to distinguish whether what I saw was tangible or not. This caused me great discomfort and anxiety. . . . These certainly were not hallucinations . . . for in other respects I was normal and composed.”

The son of a Serbian Orthodox priest, Tesla was relatively well educated in literature, science and mathematics and had a strong practical inventive inclination. He was a lonely man with many odd habits and strong compulsions. For example, at each meal he would have to calculate the cubic area of each bite of food before eating it. Similarly, he had to finish reading whatever he started, even when it ran into many volumes, whether or not he had lost interest or had decided that he was getting little return for his effort.

In 1884, he immigrated to America during a time of great excitement over technical innovation with the telephone, electric light and other new inventions. He even worked for Thomas Edison for a while (with extraordinary energy and dedication) when he first arrived in America, but finally had to leave Edison's company to pursue his own highly innovative but incompatible ideas—inventing, eventually, the entire alternating current electric power system used around the world today. (Edison was furious that Tesla’s system proved to be vastly superior to his own direct current system and he did everything he could to discredit the system that Telsa had sold to Westinghouse.)

In order to control his strong visual imagination in his youth, Tesla experimented with various mental exercises and, quite literally, flights of the imagination. In time, it became clear that the “affliction” was the negative side of what turned out to be a special and unusual talent. He continued these exercises “. . . until I was about seventeen when my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind. Thus I have been led unconsciously to evolve what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is radically opposite to the purely experimental and is in my opinion ever so much more expeditious and efficient.”

Tesla explains that if something is constructed before it is fully developed and worked out in the mind, then the experimenter is often distracted by comparatively unimportant details of apparatus construction. In Tesla's words: “The moment one constructs a device to carry into practice a crude idea he finds himself unavoidably engrossed with the details and defects of the apparatus. As he goes on improving and reconstructing, his force of concentration diminishes and he loses sight of the great underlying principle. . . .”

Powers Beyond Belief

Some might question Tesla’s claims. He was known to have a tendency to make extravagant statements, especially to eager young reporters. We know also that Tesla was a great showman when demonstrating his new electrical devices to the public--more like a magician than an engineer or scientist. Yet his tricks were based on scientific and engineering knowledge that was not known by others in his field until decades later. Also, many of the extravagant tales and devices, like laser beams, long distance microwave power transmission and ocean thermal electricity generation, are only comparatively recently coming into serious consideration and use.

For many, Tesla’s claims were hard to believe (although those who did believe in him, in contrast, accorded him almost cult leader-like status). However, we now have reason for taking Tesla at his word. He does provide some justification for why this should be so: “Why should it be otherwise? Engineering, electrical and mechanical, is positive in results. There is scarcely a subject that cannot be mathematically treated and the effects calculated or the results determined beforehand from the available theoretical and practical data. The carrying out into practice of a crude idea as is being generally done is, I hold, nothing but a waste of energy, money and time.”

Models in Mind and Machine

We are now learning that Tesla was, in most respects, to be believed. It is perhaps a sign of our times that what might be seen as a bizarre tale spun by Tesla in a magazine article published in 1919, is now, over 80 years later, exploding into prominence at the center of industry and commerce. Tesla argued that it is a waste of time and money to build a model or prototype of anything until a number if variations have been tested in a powerful visual imagination such as his own. Virtually the same point is being made in recent years by designers, engineers and managers--but this time they are talking about the machine equivalent of Tesla's remarkable and unusual imagination--that is, what is now known as “3D computing.”

With three-dimensional computing, working models of aircraft, automobiles, golf clubs or nuclear power plants can be (and have been) constructed inside a powerful graphic computer and displayed on a screen. These models can be operated and tested and modified much as Tesla was apparently able to do with his imagination alone. Proponents claim many advantages for the widespread use of 3D computing, but two of the most important advantages relate to increased creativity and reductions in the costs of prototype building. For example, in one early study (by KPMG Peat Marwick) of the use of 3D computing in five U.S. and Japanese companies: “The speed and power of 3D Computing has all but eliminated the requirements to produce physical prototypes and models. This allows management and engineers to economically pursue more creative and sometimes high risk design options. NASA/Ames uses [3D] workstations to simulate a wide number of options for a Mach 25 aircraft that would have been cost prohibitive using the traditional wind tunnel practices.”

Tesla noted the speed and ease with which his mental modeling proceeded, free of the distractions of building an actual physical prototype. This is not an unusual observation. Creative designers often lament the time required to build a physical product of what could be built so quickly in their mind. Thus, it may not be surprising that, in practice, another important consequence of 3D computing is a marked decrease in frustration along with a marked increase in productivity: “Users of 3D Computing reported increases in individuals' productivity of 20 percent to 50 percent. This higher productivity was used to expand the scope of individual job functions and to reduce the actual time to complete a project. The ability to ‘handle’ the realistic electronic model led to improved interaction between the designer and the model resulting in a more intimate and accurate understanding of the model. This also resulted in more creativity, less frustration. We consistently observed that users had a positive work attitude and they preferred working in a 3D environment as compared to the manual or 2D environment in which they had previously worked.”

Something Really New

These kinds of reports make one wonder whether this is just one more step in an old progression or whether these developments, by now well established in some areas, can be seen as the beginning of something that is really quite new. Such changes may make it possible for comparatively ordinary people to do with ease and speed what before only extraordinary people like Tesla could do inside their heads. And, as we have noted before, this new direction in development might very well favor those who are much better with the manipulation of images and 3D models than the manipulation of codes, words and even mathematical symbols.

With Tesla, the power of the visual imagination takes on a whole new dimension. He was clearly an intensely creative visual thinker. He had some related difficulties, such as a curious inability to make drawings, but these did not appear to be a problem for him. Perhaps his greatest liability was the fierce independence and lack of social skill that repeatedly caused him to fall out with his coworkers and benefactors, eventually making him unable to continue his work.

Telsa, however, provides us with an example of visual thinking that illustrates, in a most concrete way, the power and potential of this ability. What Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein may have been able to do with abstract images, imaginary mechanical analogies or related mathematical formulas, Tesla seems to have been able to do in his mind with almost real mechanical devices and working machinery. (Some readers may recall an earlier blog referring to the powerful visual thinking used by the dyslexic molecular biologist William Dreyer--“Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts,” March 29, 2009.)

Tesla provides us with not only important new insights but also with a standard against which other visual thinkers may be assessed. He also provides us with an example of what, in time, more ordinary people may be able to do with the new tools that are becoming cheaper, more powerful, and easier to use as they become more and more widely available.

Note: Please go on to parts 2 and 3 of this blog entry below.

Part 2, Nikola Tesla, Thinking in Pictures and Asperger Syndrome

Thinking in Pictures in Another Dimension

When I did my original research on Nikola Tesla for my earlier book In the Mind’s Eye, I decided to include him in that book because of his wonderful descriptions of his own powerful visualization abilities--in spite of the fact that he had no indication of dyslexia or the other language-related learning problems I was also interested in. He had many unusual characteristics, but he seemed in most respects entirely unlike most of the other individuals I had included in that book. I suspected there was a significant pattern to Tesla’s unusual mixture of traits but I had no idea what it was.

Then I read Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. Grandin, as an autistic herself, describes the traits typically seen in a form of high functioning autism known as Asperger syndrome. In one chapter she deals with the possible relationship of giftedness or even genius in relation to the syndrome. Here she describes a number of important historical figures who would appear to have many of the appropriate traits. Although she does not explicitly name Tesla, it would appear that Grandin had clearly supplied the pattern I had been looking for. Common characteristics of Asperger syndrome are: excellent rote memory, notable lack of social skills and lack of sensitivity to various social cues, strong focus and single mindedness of thought and action along with eccentric, sometimes compulsive behavior.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in autism and Asperger syndrome. This increase in interest is mainly due to very large increases in the numbers of children (and their parents) being diagnosed. By now it is well known that these increases are often associated with areas of the country where many high technology industries are located. An article by Steve Silberman for Wired magazine, titled “The Geek Syndrome,” summarized the situation some years ago: “At clinics and schools in [Silicon] Valley, the observation that most parents of autistic kids are engineers and programmers who themselves display autistic behavior is not news. And it may not be news to other communities either. Last January, Microsoft became the first major US corporation to offer its employees insurance benefits to cover the cost of behavioral training for their autistic children. One Bay Area mother [reported] that when she was planning a move to Minnesota with her son, who has Asperger syndrome, she asked the school district there if they could meet her son's needs. ‘They told me that the northwest quadrant of Rochester, where the IBMers congregate, has a large number of Asperger kids,’ she recalls. ‘It was recommended I move to that part of town.’ ”

Links with a range of technical occupations have been widely observed. Some call Asperger syndrome “the engineers’ disorder.” Certain high-tech entrepreneurs and company heads are sometimes linked to the condition as well. Silberman’s article in Wired notes that “Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder.” Strong visual traits are not necessarily a major component of autism or Asperger syndrome. However, for both Nikola Tesla and Temple Grandin herself (and others), visualization and visual thinking are central components of their thought processes.

Interest in links between high intelligence and Asperger syndrome have been popping up in various scientific journals for some time. For example, a brief article in Science magazine (February 2000) referred to an article in the December 1999 issue of Neurocase: “Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues at the University of Cambridge report on a study of three men with [Asperger syndrome]: a 38-year-old mathematician and two students, a physicist and a computer scientist. The mathematician, anonymous in the paper but who acknowledged his identity to Science, is Richard Borcherds, a recipient of the Fields Medal, math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize (Science, August 1998).” Along with a control group, the subjects took tests of how well they could read emotions in photographs. They also took tests to measure their understanding of “folk physics.”

As it turned out, “The subjects did far better than the controls on the physics test, but they were far worse at reading moods. The results ‘strongly suggest that social intelligence is independent of other kinds of intelligence, and may therefore have its own unique evolutionary history,’ the psychologists write. Other recent research has indicated that autism is more common in families of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians. . . .” The article goes on to explain that “Borcherds, now at the University of California at Berkeley, is frank about his condition, although he describes himself as being ‘at the fuzzy borderline’ of Asperger syndrome. He’s not sure the research says anything new. Mathematicians’ social ineptness has long been part of the profession’s self-deprecating folklore, he observes: ‘I seem to have a hell of a lot of colleagues who are not too much unlike me.’ ”

An article in The New York Times by Amy Harmon (April 2004) focused on the rapidly spreading awareness years ago of Asperger syndrome among adults with the condition. Most have long been puzzled by the traits in themselves, but did not know, until recently, that there was a diagnosis and a name. They thought they were alone. Now many are gathering together in support groups. “They all share a defining trait: They are what autism researchers call ‘mind blind.’ Lacking the ability to read cues like body language to intuit what other people are thinking, they have profound difficulty navigating basic social interactions. The diagnosis is reordering their lives. Some have become newly determined to learn how to compensate. They are filling up scarce classes that teach skills like how close to stand next to someone at a party, or how to tell when people are angry even when they are smiling.”

The new and rapidly spreading awareness has many effects in many directions, especially within families, observes Harmon. “This new wave of discovery . . . is also sending ripples through the lives of their families, soothing tension among some married couples, prompting others to call it quits. Parents who saw their adult children as lost causes or black sheep are fumbling for ways to help them, suddenly realizing that they are disabled, not stubborn or lazy.”

Also, Harmon observes that the support groups are having important effects on those affected: “Some are finding solace in support groups where they are meeting others like themselves for the first time. And a growing number are beginning to celebrate their own unique way of seeing the world. They question the superiority of people they call ‘neurotypicals’ . . . and challenge them to adopt a more enlightened, gentle outlook toward social eccentricities.”

Awareness of Asperger syndrome has continued to spread through the popular culture. A much acclaimed and best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, very much in evidence in the spring of 2004 in bookshops in both the US and Britain, has as narrator a 15 year-old boy with Asperger syndrome. Haddon, who had some early work experience with autism and similar conditions, explains that he really chanced upon the flat “voice” of the narrator—who loves mathematics and patterns and describes exactly what he is seeing but never fully understands its social significance. Haddon said that when he chanced upon this voice and realized how useful it would to himself as writer he thought he had something very special. “When you’re writing in that voice, you never try and persuade the reader to feel this or that about something. And once I realized that, I knew that the voice was gold dust.”

More recently, John Elder Robison’s book, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s (2007), became a New Your Times best seller. Robison tells the story of how his obsession with electronic circuits in high school led to an early career of innovation--making many very new sound effects and then exploding guitars for bands like the Pink Floyd and KISS. Most recently, it is worth mentioning that the big hit thriller for the summer of 2010, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larrson, features a young heroine who is described within the novel as having Asperger syndrome (as well as having many of the appropriate characteristics).

With Tesla, from Visualization to Asperger Syndrome

We started out with the story of Nikola Tesla helping us to understand the great power of certain forms of visual imagination and visualization. Subsequently, his story served as a bridge to help us understand the possibilities as new computer visualization systems extend some of this visualization power to individuals having conventional brains but unconventionally powerful machines.

But beyond this--never in the original plan--we are then led to see that many aspects of Tesla’s strange behavior and his remarkable talents can be better understood in the context of the newly recognized patterns in autism and Asperger syndrome—both relatively recently recognized conditions. The former was first described and named in the 1940s (remarkably by two separate individuals) while the latter did not appear in US diagnostic manuals until the 1990s. Both were thought to be extremely rare, until, just in the last few years, large increases in incidence became evident and demanded attention.

Tesla’s example has helped us understand a new way of seeing the world—one that would appear to be closely linked to the use of the newest visual technologies. Yet, remarkably, it would appear that there is a new recognition of whole groups of children and adults who would seem to be more or less like Tesla, especially in those parts of the country where the newest technologies, of all kinds, are being created and developed.

Some argue that the numbers of children with “autism spectrum” disorders has increased because new technology centers tend to draw together (and reward highly) large numbers of those having few or moderate autistic traits. As a consequence, it is said, some of the affected adults then marry each other (in larger numbers than would have happened otherwise) and they have children who may have autistic traits that are much more pronounced than either parent alone (in a process known as assortative mating).

Dan Geschwind, director of the neurogenetics lab at UCLA, sees some similarities between dyslexia and autism since both challenge conventional ideas about human intelligence: “that certain kinds of excellence might require not just various modes of thinking, but different kinds of brains. ‘Autism gets to fundamental issues of how we view talents and disabilities,’ he says. ‘The flip side of dyslexia is [having, with reading problems] enhanced abilities in math and architecture. There may be an aspect of this going on with autism and assortative mating in places like Silicon Valley. In the parents, who carry a few of the genes, they’re a good thing. In the kids, who carry too many, it’s very bad.’ ”

In a similar vein, Grandin quotes a researcher who observes that a “disorder may occur if a person receives too big a dose of genetic traits which are only beneficial in smaller amounts. For example, a slight tendency to fixate on a single subject can enable a person to focus and accomplish a great deal, whereas a stronger tendency to fixate prevents normal social interaction.”

Note: Please go on to part 3 of this blog entry below.

Part 3, Nikola Tesla, Thinking in Pictures and Asperger Syndrome

Diversity--New Understanding

As a new awareness comes into public consciousness through various sources like the Grandin’s book, Silberman’s Wired article or Haddon’s novel or Robison’s life story, it is hoped that all of us will develop a better understanding about why some people behave the way that they do—as well as gain some insight into how they are able to do things the rest of us cannot do. We may become more tolerant or we may come to be more aware of the power of real diversity (and its price). Or, we may be more willing to have certain services available for affected children and adults. Or, some of us may see some of these traits in ourselves or our friends or our family members.

Whatever our reaction, it gradually becomes apparent that we may be on the edge of not one but two major changes. The new visual and other technologies may allow us to use our brains in far more powerful ways than the conventional technologies of words and numbers and books alone. But at the same time, without being fully aware of what we are doing and how we are doing it, we may be helping to create larger numbers of individuals who are unusually well suited to work within these new worlds. It may be far too early to understand what is going on here or what it signifies. However, there do seem to be some parallels with dyslexia research that might be helpful.

Paradox and Social Benefit

Dyslexia was first recognized and described more than a century ago, in the 1880s, some 60 years before autism was first described. Like autism, it was initially thought to be extremely rare. Now it is seen as affecting as much as 15 to 20 percent of the population, depending on the definitions used, and as having profound effects on education, employment, and life success. There was little scientific or government attention to dyslexia until the last decade or two when both increased greatly, with substantial funding for research. Throughout, there has always been a tendency to look at the problems associated with dyslexia and the focus has been on ways to fix the problems. But also, from the earlier days, there has been a very small group of individuals who believed that with the dyslexia came certain advantages (sometimes, or even often, but never always).

Among these was the late Harvard neurologist Norman Geschwind (a distant relative of Dan Geschwind, quoted above). He believed that the same unusual neurological formations that lead to dyslexia could also promote a range of superior abilities. Accordingly, he has provided a discussion that may also may have some relevance to autism spectrum disorders: If the problem condition also has advantages (in some cases), he wondered, then how can we learn to control the condition and not give up the (sometimes considerable) advantages? Geschwind's comments on the possible prevention of dyslexia take on an extra dimension of significance when we consider autism as well. Geschwind explains: “the dilemma . . . becomes obvious. Not only do many dyslexics carry remarkable talents that benefit their society enormously, but the same talents exist in unusually high frequency among their unaffected relatives. If we could somehow prevent these brain changes, and thus prevent the appearance of dyslexia, might we not find that we have deprived the society of an important and irreplaceable group of individuals endowed with remarkable talents?”

In spite of this, Geschwind was hopeful that the advantages and disadvantages are not necessarily connected. This hope was based on evidence that there are many nondyslexic “individuals among the relatives of dyslexics who are . . . possessed of remarkable spatial talents. . . . We know that especially frequently the sisters of dyslexics are likely to share the talents without the disadvantages of dyslexia. Once we gain intimate information as to the mechanisms of formation of the anomalies that lead to the superior talents, we should be able to retain the advantages while avoiding the disadvantages.”

Thus, Geschwind hoped to have, eventually, one without the other. We too may well hope for this (with dyslexia and with autism), but we need also to consider the possibility that it may not always be possible. We may need to consider that it may be an essential part of the nature of things that, in a significant number of cases, one cannot have one without the other.

Is it possible that our brains have such design constraints? Is it possible that unusual proficiency in one area will often mean a significant lack of proficiency in another? Or, conversely, is it possible that a deficiency in one area may indicate the likelihood of special abilities in other areas? Or, given a third case, if one has fairly balanced capabilities, is it probable that, in many instances, extraordinary abilities (in either of two incompatible modes) may be precluded? Most recent neurological evidence suggests that this may in fact be so.

Albert Galaburda, an associate of Norman Geschwind, carried out microanatomical studies of the brains of dyslexics. After detailed examination of several cases, Galaburda and his associates described the role of microscopic lesions (areas of damage or diminished growth) and the unusual symmetry of certain formations that had been observed in all the dyslexic brains that they had examined. Galaburda observed that the microscopic lesions may be capable of suppressing the development of some areas, but he suggested a role for them in actually increasing the development of other areas.

This research suggests a biological basis for the frequent paradoxical coexistence of special abilities and disabilities in the same individual: “We all know that these lesions may in fact be capable of reorganizing the brain. But they don't always reorganize the brain to produce dyslexics. I am sure that similar mechanisms are used to reorganize the brain to produce geniuses too, and sometimes both of them occur in the same person.”

Norman Geschwind pointed out that the study of dyslexia is filled with paradoxes. If the observations of Geschwind and Galaburda are borne out by further research, then perhaps one of the most striking paradoxes is that many of those with the greatest abilities can also be expected to have unusual difficulty in areas that are easy for those with average abilities. Similarly, we could find that the study of Asperger syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders may also be filled with paradoxes—the greatest of which may be: when we come to learn more about autism (as with dyslexia), is it possible that we may find that we cannot live entirely without it, at least in some moderate measure? As Dan Geschwind noted above, these studies tend to take us to deeper levels, forcing us (as did Tesla’s story) to think in fresh ways about deep diversity in human intelligence and capability.

Endnote A -- This 3-part web log entry is based on Chapter 22, Thinking Like Einstein, by Thomas G. West, where full references are provided. An earlier, shorter version appeared in Computer Graphics, a publication of ACM SIGGRAPH, the international association for professional computer graphic artists and technologists.

Endnote B -- According to the entry from MedlinePlus from the National Library of Medicine: “Asperger syndrome (AS), one of the autistic spectrum disorders, is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially. AS is commonly recognized after the age of 3. People with high-functioning autism are generally distinguished from those with AS because autism is associated with marked early language delay. Other characteristics of AS include clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements, limited interests or unusual preoccupations, repetitive routines or rituals, speech and language peculiarities, and non-verbal communication problems. Generally, children with AS have few facial expressions. Many have excellent rote memory, and become intensely interested in one or two subjects (sometimes to the exclusion of other topics). They may talk at length about a favorite subject or repeat a word or phrase many times. Children with AS tend to be self-absorbed, have difficulty making friends, and are preoccupied with their own interests. There is no specific course of treatment or cure for AS. Treatment may include psychotherapy, parent education and training, behavioral modification, social skills training, educational interventions, and medications for specific behavioral symptoms.” (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/aspergerssyndrome.html)

Endnote C -- When Temple Grandin was on her book tour promoting the paperback edition of Thinking in Pictures, she came to Washington, D.C, for a book signing and a lecture to a autism parent group. At the book signing, I asked her to sign the copy of her book that I had just purchased (although I had already read another copy earlier). At the same time I presented her with a copy of my own book, In the Mind’s Eye, which I thought she might find interesting. She took one look at my book and said that she had always wanted to read it. I asked how she knew of it. She said she had seen a review of my book when she was correcting the proofs for Thinking in Pictures. When she saw the review, it was too late to put anything more into her text, but she could add a book to her list of readings for her first chapter — where to my surprise she pointed it out. The next day we had a long telephone conversation about the similarities and differences between her treatment of visual thinking in relation to autism and my treatment of visual thinking in relation to dyslexia. I had always hoped to look more into these connections, but whenever I brought it up to researchers in the field, I was told that the two conditions were too dissimilar. Nothing could be learned, they explained, from looking at them together. For some time I have suspected that they might be wrong. I thought that the high visual aspect in two rather different but overlapping conditions might lead to some insight both unexpected and valuable. (Possibly more valuable because unexpected.) Perhaps we will see, one way or the other, in the not too distant future whether my (our) hunch might be correct.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Success of Failure, The Failure of Success

It is widely believed that students with high grades move on to eventually make great discoveries, innovations and other major contributions to their chosen field. However, sometimes, indeed many times it seems, the reverse is true. The world of scientific research provides us with a window into the true origins of many major discoveries.

Strangely, it is sometimes harder for well-trained and highly successful scientists to make truly original discoveries. They are kept busy with many obligations -- preparing lectures, advising students, consulting with coauthors: journal deadlines, peer review, grant applications, student recommendations, conference presentations, expert advisory groups, government commissions, faculty parties and retirement dinners. Plenty to keep one busy and fully focused on the pressing schedule at hand.

It is little wonder that Einstein recommended that a scientist should remain apart as much as possible from the politics of science ("the battle of the brains") and instead take work as a lighthouse keeper or shoemaker or some other less demanding employment -- to keep his mind relatively free of interruptions and worrisome obligations. His suggestions seem romantic to us now, but his basic approach has begun to appear increasingly sensible to experienced researchers who find their lives are too full of career obligations to focus on really original work.

Strangely, in a similar way, lack of career success or even a long illness may be of benefit to the creative person. These may help to give the creative person the uninterrupted time to get the work done -- not unlike the paradoxical benefit of imprisonment, in the old days, in getting books written. (It may be recalled that it was while he was in prison that Marco Polo had time to set down the account of his extensive travels in China.) At least one book has been written on the beneficial role of long illnesses in providing uninterrupted time for single-minded creative effort. A not too successful career path may also be a help. Maxwell wrote his two-volume Treatise during a period of semi-retirement in the middle of a none too successful career.

(The cause and effect relationships are never perfectly clear, however. Would the book never have been completed if he had not the time, or would he have found the time in any case? How many would be willing to interrupt or divert a career that is in high gear to devote full attention to a fringe project with a risky and uncertain outcome? Or, indeed, how many ambitious, career-conscious professionals would allow themselves to focus on questionable topics such as cloud formations when the boss is really interested in laser fusion?)

Accordingly, if one wishes to be really creative, it seems that sometimes it is essential to have one's time less than fully committed -- to be able to follow where one's thoughts lead rather than having to succeed in a series of tasks largely defined by one's career, the limits of one’s specialist area or the ambitions of one's competitors.

One wonders what might have happened to Einstein's early work without his period of independent study (following his own fancy) as a school dropout, his lecture cutting and continued self-directed study during his university years, his two years of intermittent unemployment (with contrasting growth in intellectual excitement) after graduation and then his relatively undemanding patent office job once he did enter the world of conventional work.

We might wonder what would have happened if he had become immediately enmeshed in the teaching, administrative and social demands of a conventionally successful career. As he himself observed, in such a path there is a strong tendency to do research that is comparatively superficial and predictable -- little steps that do not risk serious failure or threaten existing beliefs, modest research programs that can be relied upon to produce publishable results and supportive, unthreatened mentors.

We might wonder how many have been diverted from greater accomplishments because of early success and recognition. Once again, a kind of natural selection may be at work, having curious and unexpected consequences. Sometimes, strangely, we can argue that truly great accomplishments may be severely hindered by even modest levels of early conventional success.

In addition, there may be other, more subtle barriers to really original creative work. There are other reasons that the expert and the professional may find it hard to change their ways of thinking, especially when it involves some of their most basic concepts and beliefs.

Many years of hard work and one's self-image as a competent professional may be closely bound up with a belief in what one has been taught -- which, in time, often one has come to be engaged in teaching oneself. Of course, little changes and corrections are needed here and there to keep up the momentum of gradual progress and to make one's reputation. But there is often little incentive to question or overturn fundamental elements of the discipline -- making obsolete some of one's own career accomplishments as well as those of many others. Even worse is to blur the boundaries of the discipline, inviting territorial battles and the threat of lost professional status and credibility.

As James Gleick observes, this conservatism continues to be a powerful force in the still emerging science of chaos: “ . . . The language of mathematics remained a serious barrier to communication. If only the academic world had room for hybrid mathematician/physicists -- but it did not. . . . Mathematicians continued to speak one language, physicists another. As the physicist Murray Gell-Mann once remarked: ‘Faculty members are familiar with a certain kind of person who looks to mathematicians like a good physicist and looks to physicists like a good mathematician. Very properly, they do not want that kind of person around.’ The standard of the two professions were different. Physicists had theorems, mathematicians had conjectures. The objects that made up their worlds were different. Their examples were different.”

If one wants to have a successful career, it is much wider and safer to clearly identify with one group or another. The risk of confusion or loss of credibility is often too great to be seriously considered by any prudent professional, especially those who have learned early and well the rewards of staying within the acceptable and desirable boundaries. Balance a doubt against a certainty and stay within the conventions of the norm.

In the end, there is even a greater problem: the important thing is that truly original discoveries sometimes require unlearning and relearning not only what one has been taught, but also fundamental and basic elements in the way one thinks about things in general -- some of the most fundamental concepts at the core of one's own thought processes.

We must not go too far down this road, of course, without pointing out that there are all kinds and levels of accomplishment and creative discovery. Each set of weekly and monthly science periodicals is a feast of enticing new developments. We are all too aware that the conventional system -- of university courses and grant programs and research laboratories -- is turning out vast quantities of wonderful and exciting and frightening things.

Clearly, the conventional system does produce. It would be wrong to suggest otherwise. (Although it seems to often produce pieces that make the whole less clear. The most general and comprehensive and integrating explanations are the most exciting, but are also the most rare.) However, there are other ways. Sometimes the biggest ideas can come from the least likely sources. And perhaps the most important ideas come rarely from those who would appear (by conventional standards) to be the best and the brightest.

All of this is, of course, an administrative problem as well. Such an unconventional process is hard to manage and control. Yet there it is. Perhaps all that can be done is to learn that such things do sometimes happen; to hope to be able to recognize them as they begin to develop; and to try to keep from destroying real creativity as it grows and begins to mature.

In the end, probably the most effective deterrent to really original work is not so much the career distractions and disincentives as the fact that the professionals often have learned their lessons too well. If you have had great success in learning to think the way your teachers and associates think, then it is all the more difficult to think in some really original and unexpected way.

In fairness, it should be noted that this problem clearly flows from the necessary double bind of any accumulated knowledge. Most of the gains are through the further application of what is already known. However -- occasionally -- this same factor can be a major cause of error and lack of progress.

This essential problem may explain why it is sometimes best to work in a field other than the one that one originally studied -- if one wants to make truly original contributions. In one's own field, one has already developed a strong internal editor that may serve to criticize and to demolish the “silly” thoughts before they can take hold internally -- or before they can get out to embarrass you. It is hard to unlearn what you have learned so well. Perhaps, also, this is the reason that it has been observed that the most original ideas often come not from those at the top of their field, but from those who are at the fringes of the field.

The double problem of knowing too much or knowing too little is nicely summarized in a passage from one of the classic studies of scientific creativity. When a field is developing normally, expert knowledge is a great advantage; but when there is an abrupt change in the course of development (or some major new factor becomes evident), expert knowledge may be a considerable disadvantage: “Thus in subjects in which knowledge is still growing, or where the particular problem is a new one, or a new version of one already solved, all the advantage is with the expert, but where knowledge is no longer growing and the field has been worked out, a revolutionary new approach is required and this is more likely to come from the outsider. The skepticism with which the experts nearly always greet these revolutionary ideas confirms that the available knowledge has been a handicap.”

It is, of course, a double-bind in another sense; one has to be close enough to conventional thought in order to obtain the needed information from the conventional sources, to check one's findings and to be able to explain one's new ideas in a way that is understandable and acceptable to others conventional modes of thought.

But this is not a new problem. Long ago, an instance of coming close to a discovery but not being able to make the conceptual changes needed to achieve the desired result was observed in a colleague by Michael Faraday. In a letter to a friend who had described to Faraday this colleague's researches on the magnetic condition of matter, Faraday wrote: “Many thanks . . . for your note. I have in consequence seen Bequerel's paper, and added a note at the first opening of my paper. It is astonishing to think how he could have been so near the discovery of the great principle and fact, and yet so entirely miss them both, and fall back into old and preconceived notions.”

Here we see that the power of “old and preconceived notions” may serve as a barrier to imminent discovery in any time or age. Then, as now, for some, one of the greatest deterrents to original thinking and discovery may be nothing more than long-established habits of thought.

As an old man, reviewing his life's work, Einstein observed that one of the most difficult things he had to do in his own work was to unlearn old patterns of thought. He observed that, in retrospect, a certain line of development could be seen as almost inevitable -- yet barriers of inflexible basic concepts could deter progress to that inevitable solution for many years: “That the special theory of relativity is only the first step of a necessary development became completely clear to me only in my efforts to represent gravitation in the framework of this theory . . .. This happened in 1908. Why were another seven years required for the construction of the general theory of relativity? The main reason lies in the fact that it is not so easy to free oneself from the idea that coordinates must have a direct metric significance.”

In other words, Einstein saw that he could not move from the special theory to the general theory without first changing -- in his own mind -- some extremely basic ideas and conceptions. This, it took seven years to do.

Einstein commented elsewhere on this problem -- remarking that, in time, some of his theories could be easily understood by young students, but that made them no easier to find in the beginning, when he was wandering alone in the dark.

The hard part, apparently, is seeing for the first time things in a way that is different from the way they have ever been seen before: “In the light of knowledge attained, the happy achievement seems almost a matter of course, and any intelligent student can grasp it without too much trouble. But the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alternations of confidence and exhaustion, and the final emergence into the light -- only those who have experienced it can understand it.”

Presumably, many scientists (and others) are never able to do this deep exploration. They have neither the special ability nor the essential inclination. Basic concepts, once learned, are fixed for life.

Thus we see that, sometimes, great quantities of knowledge are not enough. Sometimes one has to be willing to change basic assumptions and thought processes in order to see clearly the unexpected truths that could be clearly evident -- if only we could see them in the right way. Sometimes knowing a lot is not nearly so important as being able to view it from a different and truly original perspective.

Adapted from chapter 8, In the Mind’s Eye, where full references are provided.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Churchill--Learning to See

I just gave a talk at Oxford University last week, staying at Magadlen College, and I look forward to giving two talks on the island of Malta at the end next week. More on these later. Just now I thought I would focus a bit on Winston Churchill--once again. In doing research for In the Mind’s Eye long ago, I was surprised to find how interesting he was on many levels, and what perceptive observations he had made.

As I have been driving through the English countryside West of Oxford this trip, through villages like Blockley and Pusey, and driving past the entrance to Blenheim Place (where Churchill was born), I found myself thinking once again of the strikingly apt passages I had found in Churchill’s writings. I pass an old airfield and think of Churchill’s observations on early aircraft and flying. I see a blank wall in full sun and think of his observations regarding painting and his growing powers of observation. I see a broad expanse of hillside and think of his comparison of visual thinking in military operations and (amazingly) techniques in art. I will quote below sections from In the Mind’s Eye (without quotation marks).

Learning to See

The theme of the late-bloomer reappears again and again with Churchill. He was not an early reader, but greatly loved reading once he became proficient. He had difficulty with speech as a youth, but developed, in time, an extraordinary sensitivity and skill with language. He seemed to be poor in nearly every aspect of school, until his late teens when, at Sandhurst, he developed with great rapidity--feeling himself "growing up almost every week"--then finishing well ahead of most of his peers. Even his great love of painting was developed quite late, when he was middle-aged. And, of course, his greatest achievements during World War II were reserved for the years in which most would have already gone into retirement (and some time after he and others regarded his political career as essentially "finished").

What, then, can be said of his education as a writer and historian? His education during his years at Harrow (where, after all, he did not do very well) would not seem sufficient to explain his great skill or depth of knowledge and understanding in later years. Nor would even his oft-repeated study of elementary English composition and grammar. His years at Sandhurst were designed for the active and practical military professional, not to provide a background in the literature of the military historian.

Where and when had he read the great authors, to provide a base for his native writing skills? Once again, late-blooming seems the answer and seems the dominant pattern. Like Faraday, Churchill started late but he never stopped. And he followed his own program, in his own time, for his own purposes.

After Sandhurst, and after brief exciting exploits in Cuba, he was posted with his British Army unit to India. During this time, he entered upon a program of reading to correct the deficiencies of Harrow and Sandhurst. If we are correct in asserting that Churchill developed capabilities greater than others, but later than others (as some of those we have been considering), then it is not hard to imagine that his program of self study had the right timing and conditions for the greatest benefit (perhaps much greater than one would usually obtain as part of a conventional university program of study).

In India, Churchill had apparently taken well to the easy routine of military duties and regimental competitions. But when his need for deeper and broader knowledge came it was abrupt and strong: “It was not until this winter of 1896, when I had almost completed my twenty-second year, that the desire for learning came upon me. I began to feel myself wanting in even the vaguest knowledge about many large spheres of thought.”

By this time, he had developed a feeling for language and an appreciation for words "fitting and falling into their places like pennies in the slot." He had developed a extensive vocabulary, yet he was aware that he was not always sure of the meaning of certain words and was hesitant to use them "for fear of being absurd." He was aware that he knew something about a variety of topics, such as tactics or politics or honorable behaviour. But what of a topic such as ethics? “. . . In Bangalore there was no one to tell me about Ethics for love or money. . . . This was only typical of a dozen similar mental needs that now began to press insistently upon me. I knew of course that the youths at the universities were stuffed with all this patter at nineteen and twenty, and could pose you entrapping questions or give baffling answers. We never set much store by them or their affected superiority, remembering that they were only at their books, while we were commanding men and guarding the Empire. Nevertheless I had sometimes resented the apt and copious information which some of them seemed to possess, and I now wished I could find a competent teacher whom I could listen to and cross-examine for an hour or so every day.”

So without an instructor, he taught himself. He wrote to ask his mother to send him books. He started with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “I was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day, from when we quited stables till the evening shadows proclaimed the hour of polo, I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all. I scribbled all my opinions on the margins of the pages. . . It was a curious education . . . because I approached it with an empty, hungry mind, and with fairly strong jaws; and what I got I bit. . . .”

For a time during this period he read history and philosophy four or five hours each day. In addition to Gibbon, he read Plato, Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Malthus, Darwin and many other books of "lesser standing." The education was "curious" but effective. As one biographer commented: “In fact, it was a very wide and remarkable one; Churchill's selection of books was eclectic and random, but the purpose was serious: what he read he remembered, and he challenged and questioned what he read. This self-education was the first real indication of his ability, his determination, and his independence. It may also be seen as the first clear sign of a personal ambition to succeed in life.”

This dedication to work and study continued through to his early years in the House of Commons and beyond. His dedication as a young M.P. was characterized by "living with Blue Books and sleeping with encyclopedias," according to one observer.[i] A friend during these years noted that when Churchill was "not busy with politics, he was reading or writing."

Considering the pace and timing and success of Churchill's program of self study, it is perhaps not at all surprising that he observed that it is best not to read too many great books too early. Presumably, his own personal experience was a powerful testament to the truth of this assertion, especially for late bloomers. In characteristically plain but powerful language, he explains: “It is a mistake to read too many good books when quite young. A man once told me that he had read all the books that mattered. Cross-questioned, he appeared to have read a great many, but they seemed to have made only a slight impression. How many had he understood? How many had entered into his mental composition? How many had been hammered on the anvils of his mind and afterwards ranged in an armoury of bright weapons ready to hand? It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life. The first impression is the one that counts; and if it is a slight one, it may be all that can be hoped for. A later and second perusal may recoil from a surface already hardened by premature contact. Young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food. They should not eat too much. They should chew it well.”

This passage suggests a reader who is not only careful in what he reads, but also one who takes plenty of time to consider what he is reading-- pondering the content, contending with the author (as he says, scribbling his opinions in the margins), integrating what is learned with what he already knows.

Integration of knowledge. Integration of a whole life. As noted previously, the wholeness and the interconnectedness of wide interests was seen as a special and remarkable quality in the life of Maxwell, for example (perhaps the more so because this quality contrasts so greatly with the highly specialized lives and interests of many modern scientists). Integration, wholeness and the ability to see connections between highly diverse things are also repeated themes in the lives and work of others such as Faraday and Edison. With Churchill, similar themes may be seen, although they are not always, perhaps, as clearly evident.

However, the integration of diverse elements in Churchill's life has been seen by some as a characteristic of prime importance. For example, one reviewer of the two recent biographical volumes by Manchester (The Last Lion: Alone) and Gilbert (Never Despair) comments: “As for the man himself, both these books offer rich testimony to his genius. Churchill was not merely great as a man of affairs; he was the complete and rounded person--as poetic as rational; as visionary as practical; as imaginative as he was sturdy: Integer vitae might be the motto of his life. He combined artistry with hardheadedness and magnanimity with sturdiness. . . . In the years covered by these volumes he wrote his two-volume life of the first Duke of Marlborough, his famous ancestor; published six volumes of war memoirs, the first volume of which sold a quarter-million copies in one day and made him a fortune. He won a Nobel Prize for literature (few were so richly deserved) and exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy and the Tate Gallery. All the while he fondly tended his goldfish, dogs, cats, pigs, swans and racehorses and proved himself a gifted farmer and brick mason--and devoted friend.”

Churchill may have been a late bloomer with broad and integrated interests, but he also shows evidence of being a thinker with a definite propensity toward visual-spatial modes of thought. This propensity is apparent in a quite different aspect of our considerations. It is not, of course, surprising that those with high visual-spatial talents are often quite proficient in activities which require exceptional visual-spatial ability. And it is not surprising that these persons also may be especially sensitive to the special abilities of those, other than themselves, who are proficient in these areas. Thus, one might expect to find that one with these high visual-spatial talents would greatly appreciate the skill of another who is able to move with special grace and skill--by means of the newly-developed flying machine--through three-dimensional space.

In 1912, with some trepidation, Churchill started flying because he thought it part of his duties as First Lord of the Admiralty. (It is worth noting that Churchill started flying only 9 years after the Wright brothers' first flight in December of 1903 and only four years after the Wright brothers started providing aircraft and pilot training to military personnel in both America and France in 1908.[ii]) In time, however, he came to develop a very special appreciation of this new world. Churchill's description is so evocative and is so supportive of the point we are trying to make that an extended quotation seems warranted: “Once I had started flying from motives in which a sense of duty, as well as excitement and curiosity, played its part, I continued for sheer joy and pleasure. I went up in every kind of machine and at every air station under the Admiralty. . . . Then came the episode of Gustave Hamel in the spring of 1914. If ever there was a man born to fly, three parts a bird and the rest genius, it was Hamel. He belonged to the air rather than the earth, and handled the primitive machines of those days in what was then an unknown element, with a natural gift and confidence quite indescribable. . . .

“Although I have flown hundreds of times, probably with a hundred pilots, I have never experienced that sense of the poetry of motion which Hamel imparted to those who were privileged to fly with him. It was like the most perfect skater on the rink, but the skating was through three dimensions, and all the curves and changes were faultless, and faultless not by rote and rule but by native instinct. He would bank his machine so steeply that there was nothing between us and the world far below, and would continue circling downwards so gently, so quietly, so smoothly, in such true harmony with the element in which he moved, that one would have believed that one wing tip was fastened to a pivot. As for the grim force of gravity--it was his slave. In all his flying there was no sense of struggle with difficulties, or effort at a complicated feat; everything happened as if it could never have happened in any other way. It seemed as easy as pouring water out of a jug.”

Churchill shows evidence of a special sensitivity for accomplishment in a visual-spatial realm. But is there, we might ask, evidence of a more purely visual mode of thought--the operation of the mind's eye? With Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein, it seems clear that their deepest, most natural, most personal and most productive modes of thought were intensely visual (both literally and by analogy with vision), even though this might not always be apparent in their more professional and public discussions.

But what of Churchill and those like him? Can we expect to find evidence of similar hidden visual processes? Words and politics seem to lend themselves to the visual less than other things. Can we uncover evidence of an intensely visual approach laying hidden not far below the surface of verbal discourse--an underlying context of apt images and distant analogies which invisibly mold the discourse? Small and large hints, here and there, provide some indication. . . .

But [we can learn much from 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 C├ęzanne of a blank wall of a house, which he had made instinct 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.”

Churchill's great love of painting seems to indicate a deep reservoir of native capacity which may have readily manifested itself in other analogous ways in comparatively distant disciplines. Are not the fifteen hundred toy soldiers with which he spent so much time as a youth, but a near analogy of real armies which must be managed with real tactics in real battles (and in primarily visual and spatial modes of thought and analysis)?

Similarly, it is not hard to imagine that the architect of the grand allied strategy of the world conflict of 1939-1945 conceived and habitually considered this grand over-arching plan in primarily visual terms--using intellectual capacities which focused on the whole rather than the parts, the long view rather than the particular, the simultaneous comprehension of vast and complex interrelationships.

But what justification have we for such an assertion? Are we not stretching the point. Yes, granted, in some cases there may be real justification for drawing such a conclusion. It may be true of some scientists and some mathematicians and even some poets, perhaps. But painting and politics and military strategy (among other things)--can this really be defended by a responsible observer?

In response, it may be argued that one need go no further than to read closely Churchill's own thoughts and observations as laid out in his essay on painting. In a curious passage--an almost unwanted and unplanned digression--he appears to clearly make the point that he believes the great painters and the master artists were drawing on intellectual capacities which (given the necessary particular information in a given field) may be used to understand and rightly perceive "any other high activity of the human intellect."

He refers to the great Italians, but does not name them. However, among those he was referring to we would expect to find Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci--master artists who were known for their great skill in so many diverse areas of investigation, knowledge and endeavor. This passage is not elaborated, and Churchill quickly returns to his main topic--almost as if he had momentarily forgotten himself, indulging in a distant digression in thought that had presented itself to him unbidden (as he dictated his text). The passage is terse and elliptical, but his point seems to be clear enough.

Notably, the passage begins with a fresh and unexpected analogy--a comparison of the principles of painting with the principles of military command: “But it is in the use and withholding of their reserves that the great commanders have generally excelled. . . . In painting, the reserves consist in Proportion or Relation. And it is here that the art of the painter marches along the road which is traversed by all the greatest harmonies in thought. . . . It is wonderful--after one has tried and failed often--to see how easily and surely the true artist is able to produce every effect of light and shade, sunshine and shadow, of distance or nearness, simply by expressing justly the relations between the different plains and surfaces with which he is dealing. We think that this is founded upon a sense of proportion, trained no doubt by practice, but which in its essence is a frigid manifestation of mental power and size. 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 with a certain acquaintance with the special technique be able to pronounce with sureness upon any other high activity of the human intellect. This was certainly true of the great Italians.”

Indeed, in this passage Churchill's terminolgy itself is almost unsettling in its unexpected aptness. Painting and military strategy and any other "high activity" of the human mind are seen in clearly visual-spatial, right-hemisphere terms, employing words now often used by professionals in this context: focusing on "proportion" and "mental power and size" together with "one all-embracing regard, in one flash of simultaneous and homogeneous comprehension.”


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Talents Wasted, Talents Discovered

A friend from Sweden, Peder Johansson, just now sent me a trailer on a movie called "Proof." He did not know it but his remark (and seemingly the movie) get right to the heart of something that has been bothering me a lot lately. How can we work to change this? In my experience, the usual approaches do not even come close. Any new ideas or insights out there? What can we do? What is that we do not understand here? Or, what do we think we understand but don't.


"Have you seen this play or movie? If not, do. It's in the same class as "A Beautiful Mind." I got so happy and full of energy -- but then thought about all these talented persons I meet. So gifted but so many unemployed (more than 50%) because they "are special, different as me." What an enormous waste of human . . . " From Peder Johansson

Monday, April 5, 2010

Dyslexic Aviators

I recently got an email from an old friend who asked whether I knew of any famous dyslexic aviators. She said she was re-evaluating a gifted and dyslexic young lady she had first seen at 10 years of age. This young lady is now graduating from high school and wants to be an aviator. Apparently, her math skills are exceptional.

I replied that I have seen high levels of interest from airplane pilots whenever I have given talks on my books. As a group, many have high visual spatial capabilities, of course, and I suspect some may be mildly dyslexic (or have dyslexic near relatives) and are often not detected. Generally speaking, military pilots have to be college graduates, so this may have selected out some of the most severe dyslexics in the past.

However, it is now becoming more widely recognized that there are lots of dyslexics who survive and even thrive in certain college and university programs -- especially those that focus on science and math or engineering but ask less in reading and writing such as a humanities or liberal arts program. There are said to be so many dyslexics on the MIT campus that locally they call dyslexia “the MIT disease.”

However, the best answer to this query, I realized, was in my own family. I asked them to have a look at Frank Gifford Tallman III or just Frank Tallman of Talmantz Corp (with partner stunt pilot Paul Mantz). (My own full name is Thomas Gifford West since we were both named for my great grandfather.)

Frank died in 1978. He is my mother's first cousin and probably, in the final analysis, will come to be recognized as the most famous stunt pilot of all time. (Such skills are rarely wanted these days. Filmmakers generally use computer graphics now, rather than real flying.) It happens that another cousin teaches people to fly gliders and sail planes.

Because of his apparent extreme flying skill, I had long wondered whether Frank might have been dyslexic. But then a few years ago his younger sister (Prudy Wood) gathered school letters, grade reports, etc., for a book -- papers she allowed me to copy.

Based on these documents, it became clear to me that he was in fact very dyslexic -- but, on the other hand, he was one of the few people who could fly well all the oldest planes. (See Frank's book, Flying the Old Planes, long out of print.)

His sister did finish her book manuscript shortly before her death three or four years ago. The book is about the lives of Frank, another brother, Foster, and herself. (Very skillfully written, in my opinion.) I will probably tell a short version of Frank's story in my own third book -- which I am working on now.

Prudy's book has not yet been published, but I have a copy of the manuscript. Prudy has three daughters who have been looking for a publisher, without success so far. I have offered to help.

I also suggested that my friends look up Frank's list of movies, including "The Great Waldo Pepper" and many, many more. Related to this movie, Robert Redford said he would not trust anyone with his life other than Frank Tallman. (I have a TV clip of Redford saying this that I plan to put on YouTube sometime soon, if someone has not already done it.) Frank may have been only Navy pilot without a college education many years ago.

There is much more to tell. But this is a start. I note that a new “Short Biography of Frank Tallman,” by Scott A. Thompson, has been posted on the web (dated 2007).

In summary, I suspect that some dyslexics would make the very best pilots, especially for the early planes. Perhaps similar talents are still seen among the bush pilots in Alaska, for example. Of course, modern planes need a different mix of skills, but I assume the high visual side will always be important.

It happens that I quoted in In the Mind’s Eye a passage written by Winston Churchill about extreme skill among early aviators. On re-reading this passage, I am impressed not only by the story that Churchill tells, but also the extreme skill Churchill himself shows in writing the story. The text from my book follows, introducing the quotation from Churchill (chapter 6, given here without quotation marks):

Churchill . . . shows evidence of being a thinker with a definite propensity toward visual-spatial modes of thought. . . . And it is not surprising that these persons also may be especially sensitive to the special abilities of those . . . who are proficient in these areas. Thus, one might expect to find that one with these high visual-spatial talents would greatly appreciate the skill of another who is able to move with special grace and skill -- by means of the newly invented flying machine -- through three-dimensional space.

In 1912, with some trepidation, Churchill started flying because he thought it part of his duties as First Lord of the Admiralty. (It is worth noting that Churchill started flying only 9 years after the Wright brothers' first flight in December of 1903 and only four years after the Wright brothers started providing aircraft and pilot training to military personnel in both America and France in 1908.)

In time, however, he came to develop a very special appreciation of this new world. Churchill's description is so evocative and is so supportive of the point we are trying to make that an extended quotation seems warranted:

“Once I had started flying from motives in which a sense of duty, as well as excitement and curiosity, played its part, I continued for sheer joy and pleasure. I went up in every kind of machine and at every air station under the Admiralty. . . .

“Then came the episode of Gustave Hamel in the spring of 1914. If ever there was a man born to fly, three parts a bird and the rest genius, it was Hamel. He belonged to the air rather than the earth, and handled the primitive machines of those days in what was then an unknown element, with a natural gift and confidence quite indescribable. . . .

“Although I have flown hundreds of times, probably with a hundred pilots, I have never experienced that sense of the poetry of motion which Hamel imparted to those who were privileged to fly with him. It was like the most perfect skater on the rink, but the skating was through three dimensions, and all the curves and changes were faultless, and faultless not by rote and rule but by native instinct.

“He would bank his machine so steeply that there was nothing between us and the world far below, and would continue circling downwards so gently, so quietly, so smoothly, in such true harmony with the element in which he moved, that one would have believed that one wing tip was fastened to a pivot. As for the grim force of gravity -- it was his slave. In all his flying there was no sense of struggle with difficulties, or effort at a complicated feat; everything happened as if it could never have happened in any other way. It seemed as easy as pouring water out of a jug.”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Artist's Handbook

I have just started to read a nearly final manuscript copy of a forthcoming book -- Bridges in the Mind: An Artist's Handbook for Everyday Living -- by Marianne Roccaforte to be published by Benu Press, Hopkins, MN. I agreed to read it and write a blurb. Coming from a family of visual-thinking (sometimes dyslexic) artists, where there was often tension between the artistic and the practical, this book, initially, strikes me as a treasure. I wish such a book existed many years ago. I look forward to learning a lot -- and I will let you know what I find out.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Narrows, 1942

I am posting here a fragment from a forthcoming book on the lives and art of Charles Massey West, Jr., and Anne Warner West, my parents. Based on what I know now, it is clear that my father had many dyslexic traits -- including many difficulties with spelling, reading and academic work as well as high level visual-spatial talents and skills. The article is quoted below without quotation marks.

It wasn’t the top prize. But it was major recognition in a major show.

In the fall of 1942, it was a show and catalogue that mainly honored Grant Wood, who had died earlier that year. Wood had already become an icon of American painting. With images such as “American Gothic,” “Daughters of Revolution” and “Good Influence” he had linked humor and satire with pride in the simplicity of middle America, using a flat, almost plastic palate, with smooth forms, high contrast and deep shadows -- not commonly seen again until the Pixar computer animation films some 70 years later.

The top prize at the Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago had gone to Edward Hopper for “Nighthawks,” a canvas that was to become itself an icon of American painting. Lonely people in a bright diner in a dark cityscape -- familiar in numerous magazine articles, satirical imitations and young persons’ wall posters -- culminating as the central focus of the major show in the East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington, DC, that closed January 21, 2008.

Art historian and commentator Robert Hughes called Hopper the most important painter of the period and it is noteworthy that “Nighthawks” is the lone image that spans the backs of his multi-tape video history of American painting.

It is also notable how pivotal “Nighthawks” was in Hopper’s professional life. One writer notes in the National Gallery show catalogue: “In May 1945, having become famous and successful after his triumph with ‘Nighthawks,’ Hopper was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.” (Barter, 2007, p. 211.)

For West in 1942, it was not the top prize, but there he was, shoulder to shoulder with the top prizewinners.

His short biographical sketch was listed in facing pages with other short sketches of the top prizewinners. Hopper’s bio noted that his “early work aroused so little interest that he gave up painting for several years.” In West’s bio, his hometown is spelled incorrectly but his study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA, attended 1931-1934; the oldest and most prestigious art school in America) is noted along with his current teaching position and his award in 1934 of the Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship for study in Europe.

It is true that the year before the “The Narrows” had already been shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and published in Art Magazine. But this was somehow different.

In the Chicago show catalogue, there are black and white photographs of the winning paintings. Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is in the middle of the booklet, Plate VII, “Awarded the Ada S. Garrett Prize.” One page leaf away is “The Narrows” by Charles M. West, Jr., Plate IX, “Awarded the Honorable Mention for Landscape.”

Also listed in the show catalogue were paintings by well-known and not so well known artists of the period whose work was shown but did not win any prize at that exhibition. (The full catalogue listing is quoted below without quotation marks; comments from this writer are in brackets). Some of those listed were associated with the Pennsylvania Academy (many now know as Pennsylvania Impressionists) or with the Brandywine School of painters near Wilmington, Delaware.

Henriette Wyeth, born Wilmington, Delaware, 1907; lives in San Patricio, New Mexico, 233 [ref. number for paintings in this show], Portrait of N.C. Wyeth. [Daughter of N.C. Wyeth, sister of Andrew Wyeth.]

Peter Hurd, born Roswell, New Mexico, 1904; lives in San Patricio, New Mexico, 133, Prairie Shower. [Husband of Henriette Wyeth; much later famously commissioned to do portrait of LBJ.]

Walter Stuempfig, Jr., born Philadelphia, 1914; lives in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, 218, Family Reunion. [West’s classmate at the PAFA]

Francis Speight, born Windsor, North Carolina, 1896; lives in Roxborough, Pennsylvania, 217, Scene in West Manayunk. [West’s teacher at the PAFA; both were students of Daniel Garber.]

Donald M. Mattison, born Beloit, Wisconsin, 1905; lives in Indianapolis, 167, Good-by. [West’s boss at the time. As director of the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, Mattison had recruited West, then at the University of Iowa, as raising young star teacher.]

Thomas [Hart] Benton, born Neosho, Missouri, 1889; lives in Kansas City, 59, Negro Soldier.

Georgia O’Keefe, born Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, 1887; lives in New York, 180, Red Hills and Bones.

It was not the top prize. But it was a long way to have traveled for the boy from Centreville -- a small river town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that had been in many ways unchanged for more than a century. The town of 2000 on the Corsica River in a timeless rural area of farmers and watermen on the Delmarva Peninsula, had long been a virtual island between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean (reachable from Baltimore or Annapolis on the Western Shore only by slow ferry boat and ancient steamer; the two bridges were not built until the 1950s and the 1970s).

Born in 1907, young Charlie West had spent his boyhood mostly in the town’s nearby wharf area (not far from the family home) -- very like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn -- following the river traffic, absorbing outrageous superstitions and travelers’ tales, seeing melodramas at Ford’s Floating Theater, escaping his four older sisters and his no-nonsense, small-town businessman father.

(Ford’s Floating Theater was a tiny theater on a barge towed from river town to river town around the Chesapeake Bay, said to be the actual basis for the stories used in the musical “Showboat.” Charles did one watercolor and several paintings of this theater.)

It wasn’t the top prize. But in the fall of 1942, at the age of 35, the recognition received at the Chicago show was special indeed -- a kind of watershed, a balance point in his life as a painter and artist, one generation off the farm.

It was only 10 years before that he had won a full scholarship to attend art school in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy Country School at Chester Springs, PA.

It was only 8 years before that he had been awarded the top art school prize to travel and study and paint in Europe -- almost losing his life from appendicitis as the grand ship steamed toward France.

At the hospital in Paris, after his operation, he was befriended by a Hungarian Countess and her rich American husband -- and was invited to recuperate at their grand chateau near Paris. In so doing, he saw, first hand, the last days of a style of life -- with lush gardens, expensive cars, grand estates and grander parties -- that was to end forever only five years later.

In his painting, West loved the dash and freshness and vitality of the French Impressionists of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. He saw it as a style well suited to the rural landscapes and river scenes that he had known all of his life.

Two years before he had married a fellow art school student, Anne Dickie Warner. Their first son had been born in March of 1941. A second would follow in August of 1943.

The man who later became the head of the Pennsylvania Academy sent a note to the former student: “Dear Charlie: I can only take time for the merest word this morning, but the Chicago Art Institute catalogue has just come to my desk and I see that you have crashed through again. Heartiest congratulations and best wishes for all the Wests! Sincerely Yours, Joseph T. Fraser, November 11, 1942.”

When the Chicago show closed December 10, 1942, America had been at war for its first full year. The art school closed. West was retrained to become a draftsman in the local war industries in Indianapolis.

Thirty years later -- after teaching painting, sculpture and history of art at several schools and colleges, eventually resettling his young family in his own hometown -- at the end of December 1972, at the age of 65, West’s life was at an end. He was buried, with a small family service, along side his parents in the family plot in Centreville, as geese flew overhead in the cold of early January.

His wife Anne turned a small building, former law offices on Lawyer’s Row in the center of the town, into a gallery to honor her husband's paintings and those of others.

West’s father’s dream was that his son would become a lawyer, the top of the social scale of the small agricultural town and county, a northern most outpost of very Southern rural attitudes and traditions.

It is no small irony that West’s paintings -- his art and his career so much a puzzle to his father and virtually everyone else in this essentially provincial town and rural county -- finally ended up at the center of the law offices that face the old Queen Anne’s County Courthouse. There, deeds had been exchanged and fought over for hundreds of years -- land ownership long being in the area the main path to wealth and social position.

Anne Dickie Warner West -- descended from an old Quaker family of artists and engineers from Wilmington, Delaware, and, previously, Philadelphia (before the arrival of William Penn) -- lived on for another 34 years of painting and travel and grandchildren and family visits in Centreville and then Chestertown -- passing away in her sleep in the afternoon of November 10, 2006, at the age of 97, just a month short of her 98th birthday.

References

Art Institute of Chicago, 1942. Catalogue of the Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Barter, Judith A., 2007. “Travels and Travails: Hopper’s Late Pictures” in Edward Hopper, Boston, MA: MFA Publications, pp. 211-225. The book was published in conjunction with the exhibition “Edward Hopper,” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Other sections of this book were written by Carol Troyen, Janet L. Comey, Elliot Bostwick Davis and Ellen E. Roberts.

Note: A series of photographs of paintings by Anne and Charles West, Jr., is available on the web. Go to Google, click on images, picasa, request “Charles M. West, Jr.” (in quotation marks), then click on the portrait image to bring up the full set of 38 images, request slide show with full screen and commentary text below each image.

Contact: thomasgwest@gmail.com, thomasgwest@aol.com.