Friday, August 25, 2017

World Plague Stopped by Digital Artist

Recently, I came across a short piece I had written years ago. I think it is still very relevant to our interests when we try to understand the great value of visual thinking and visual technologies as we focus on “seeing what others cannot see.”

“When the World Plague Was Stopped by a Digital Artist”

by Thomas G. West

 “The future of humanity and microbes likely will unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be titled Our Wits Versus Their Genes.”

-- Dr. Joshua Lederberg, Science magazine, 2000

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

“How did you do that?

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

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

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

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

Our Wits Versus Their Genes

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

We now understand that we can never live without the microbes. We used to think they were the enemy. Now we can see clearly that they are essential supports for our lives and our world. Finally, we have learned to think more in terms of ecology than warfare, interdependence rather than elimination. Yet we now also know that we can never stop finding new ways to protect ourselves from their occasional pathological outbreaks (and, worse, our own stupidity). We can never adapt through our own genes as quickly as they can--so, we must find other ways. We must use our wits and we must learn to use all the different kinds of cleverness and inventiveness that we have among us. And we can never stop. (1)

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

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

That is, of course, does the skill, the technology, the kind of mind and the special experience of the digital artist actually lend itself distinctly to solving certain kinds of problems better than others? And might these solutions (one day) have unexpectedly broad impact? Perhaps we have a short story here that could be making a statement that has greater weight than many volumes of science or policy or procedure. Considering the enduring importance of the topic, it would appear that it could be of special interest to many beyond the comparatively small world of computer graphics. And, considering the more recent history since 2000 of global threats from SARS, anthrax, mad cow disease and bird flu, it would seem that all of us would have a deeper and more enduring interest. (2)

Just a Graphics Puzzle

I had long admired the Wired Scenarios story because it seemed to capture in a few words (and provocatively doctored photographs), my own long-held belief--that the visual approach has a special power for seeing patterns and solving problems which is not properly or fully appreciated. Too often, it is assumed that what is wanted is to know a lot of facts and to recall them quickly and accurately, on demand. The training and selection for most of our professions, from law to medicine, is based mainly on this narrow idea. (3)

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

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

One mathematician of Einstein’s own era, David Hilbert, a great admirer of Einstein's work, came close himself to some of the early basic insights involved in general relativity. Yet Hilbert did not claim any share of Einstein's major accomplishment. However, he did make clear, with no small amount of exaggeration, that Einstein's ideas came from other places than his mathematical skill. “Every boy on the streets of Göttingen,”  he said, “understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, in spite of that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” (4)

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

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

Around the World in 80 Hours

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

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

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

Brilliant Flashes

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

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

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

 (1) Joshua Lederberg, “Infectious History,” in Science magazine, April 14, 2000, pp. 287-293. Part of series, “Pathways of Discovery.” Dr. Lederberg is a Sackler Foundation Scholar heading the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics and Informatics at the Rockefeller University in New York City. He is a Nobel Laureate (1958) for his research on genetic mechanisms in bacteria. This piece was first written as one in a series of columns for the ACM-SIGGRAPH in-house publication, Computer Graphics. Subsequently, it was included in my book Thinking Like Einsetin.

 (2) Since this column first appeared in Computer Graphics in November 2000, much has happened since then to underscore the relevance of Dr. Lederberg’s essay and the Wired fictional story.

(3) Wired, “Savior of the Plague Years 1996-2020,” in Wired Scenarios: 1.01, special supplement to Wired magazine, Fall 1995, pp. 84-148. By the staff of Wired magazine. Image manipulation by Eric Rodenbeck.

(4) Quoted in West, In the Mind’s Eye, 1997, p. 122.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Short Excerpt from Seeing What Others Cannot See (Also on new blog with this name.)

[From Seeing What Others Cannot See by Thomas G. West]

Chapter One

Seeing the Whole

“What this analysis showed was that Mars had almost nothing but carbon dioxide. Just bare traces of other gases were present. And I knew immediately that this meant that Mars was probably lifeless. And at that moment, suddenly a thought came into my mind. But why is the Earth’s atmosphere so amazingly different.”            -- James Lovelock

Looking for Life on Mars -- Understanding Life on Earth

In September 1965, the British scientist James Lovelock was asked by NASA to help with the design of ways to see if there was life on Mars. He met with other scientists, mostly biologists, to discuss the design of instruments and detectors that could be transported to Mars -- which was then thought to be somewhat similar to the Mojave Desert. So they talked of soil types and landing craft. One scientist even built a tiny metal cage for the fleas that might be found on the animals that might be living in the Mars desert. Lovelock said this approach made no sense to him since we could not know if life on Mars would be in any way similar to life on Earth. The director of the scientific group was not happy and challenged Lovelock to come up with a better idea -- “by Friday.”

Under time pressure, Lovelock had a “Eureka moment” -- an idea that had not occurred to him before. He thought one had to only analyze the gases in the atmosphere of Mars (from a distance) to see whether life was there. He thought that, if life were there, the organisms would have to use gases from the atmosphere to help build their bodies and they would have to give off their waste gases to the atmosphere as well. He happened to be working in the group with the astronomer Carl Sagan -- who, with an associate, used data from a special telescope to analyze the Mars gases from the Earth. They found that almost the whole Mars atmosphere was nothing but carbon dioxide -- with only a few traces of other gases. Accordingly, Lovelock considered that there was probably no life on Mars, after all.[1]

However, in rapid fashion, Lovelock started to ask himself -- if this is true for Mars, how does this work on Earth? Initially, Sagan did not like Lovelock’s idea. But then Sagan noted a long-standing scientific puzzle: Over billions of years, our Sun has increased in power by 30 percent -- yet the Earth has remained habitable for life. If it was warm enough for life long ago, how come “we are not boiling now?” Lovelock asked himself. How was this possible? How could the Earth continue to be cool enough for life even when the Sun was growing so hot? How was Earth different from Mars? Could it be that living things on Earth were somehow regulating the gases on Earth -- and this, in turn, was regulating the temperature of the Earth as well?

In this way the idea of a self-regulating Earth was born -- now known as Lovelock’s  “Gaia Hypothesis” or later “Gaia Theory.” As other scientists have noted, this leap required an unusual kind of mind -- one capable of seeing the Earth from the “top down” as a whole, not just from the perspective of one scientific discipline or another. Because of a rather unconventional career, Lovelock was famous for having knowledge and experience in many different disciples and well as hands-on instrument invention. He was perhaps more able than most to integrate the various parts of the puzzle.

In the BBC documentary “Beautiful Mind: James Lovelock” where he tells this story, Lovelock also says “it so happens that I am dyslexic, but not seriously.” He says the dyslexia slows him down on exams and causes confusion in handling certain mathematical equations. We may well wonder to what extent Lovelock’s dyslexia (and the kinds of thinking that seem often to go along with it) would have helped him to see the really big-picture and, as a consequence, see what others could not see, forever altering the way we all see our whole planet. [2]

*  *  *  *  *

Looking at the life story of James Lovelock, one can hardly imagine anyone who fits better the kind of pattern that we are focusing on in this book. Over and over again he has seen what others could not see or would not see. As one scientist observed: “[Lovelock’s] mind is able to make intuitive leaps or connections in things that the rest of us would always keep separate in our heads and it is these connections that he has been able to see that he has gifted us.” [3]

Lovelock has always independent and unorthodox, certainly not a specialist. And he was clearly, by his own account, dyslexic, although as we noted, “not seriously.” He has described his father’s reading problems. Like James, his father was also an inventor, tinkerer and had a great knowledge of the world of nature. We see that that we have some evidence for at least two generations of these traits.
Lovelock is the author of a number of books, but mostly not about himself. However, fortunately, we have now access to a number of interviews and some very well done documentaries on his life and on his distinctive approach to science. Indeed, one documentary by the BBC in the series of “Great Minds” (quoted above) is so well put together, with material so well selected, that one could write a small essay on almost every one of Lovelock’s assertions and stories. It is quite remarkable.
Lovelock has had recognition for many inventions and discoveries. Chief among these are the electron capture detector and the Gaia Hypothesis. The electron capture detector is extremely sensitive. Some say that the sensitivity of this detector allowed the careful measurements of small amounts of chemicals in the atmosphere. The detector is thus credited with helping to start the green movement with the concern about the CFCs in the atmosphere and the well-known “ozone hole.” Two scientists, not Lovelock, received the Nobel Prize for their work with CFCs and the ozone hole. But all of their attention was based on data originally collected by Lovelock using his own invention.

Originally these data were collected mainly because Lovelock was personally curious about the new haze that he had seen over the woodlands where he used to walk with his father. This was a change. He saw that CFCs were a “people marker.” He found that they had spread all over the planet and they did not degrade. Fortunately, the problem could be addressed but stopping production by a few companies. Lovelock notes that dealing with “global heating” is not so simple or easy.

As everyone knows, the controversies about climate change and global warning are endless. However, cool minds continue to shed light on this hot topic. Referring to a very recent book (Anthony McMichael, Climate Change and the Health of Nations) reviewer Anita Makri summarizes the author’s position and recommendations:

“Scepticism, doubt, and denial don’t escape McMichael’s attention. He argues that not believing in climate change originates from a human tendency to favor urgent, survival-enhancing reactions over responding to gradual changes. Can the brainpower we evolved in times of climatic stability be channeled toward changing the behavior that undermines this  stability? he asks. McMichael concedes that change is not easy. He focuses on motivating action by speaking to the public about climate change not in the abstract but in terms that are closer to home, akin to everyday experience. Through education and informed discussion, let’s talk of debilitating heat, not emissions; parched crops, not scenarios; infectious microbes in the water we drink, not targets. This way, he says, there may be a chance to activate the “fight or flight” response that befits this threat to our survival.” [4]

Visual Thinkers and Visual Discoveries

For centuries, those who think visually and those who think differently have struggled at the edge of a world of education and work mostly dominated by those who think in words and numbers instead of images and mental models. It is not often fully appreciated how much these two groups represent vastly different cultures -- different in ways of working and different in ways of thinking.

Visual thinkers and different thinkers like Lovelock have long been, apparently, among the most creative and innovative in the sciences as well as art, design and other fields. In recent decades, the rapid rise of information-rich computer graphic data and information visualizations -- coupled with new global economic challenges and easy access to massive data sources -- has turned the conventional world of information upside down, although few with conventional “expert” knowledge have yet noticed. (Sociologists and psychologists have just begun to realize that their conventional studies of 20 subject individuals seem as nothing when social media can easily and rapidly survey thousands or millions.)

It seems clear that recent educational reforms (and more recent reforms of the reforms) in the U.S. and elsewhere have merely reinforced the long standing conventional values and methods -- leading to “teaching to the test” along with almost universal boredom and widespread fear -- while the visual and other creative talents (actually the most valuable talents in this new visual-digital world) are misunderstood and ignored.

More recently, as visual thinkers and other different thinkers aided by these new technologies increasingly move toward center stage, it is hoped that their capabilities will come to be recognized and fully valued -- and that these thinkers will be in a better position to formulate actions based on big-picture solutions to big-picture problems.

The growing awareness of the value of visual-spatial talent is a topic I have been dealing with explicitly as a researcher and writer for over 25 years – yet in many ways, I now realize, it has been a topic that I have been thinking about for most of my life. Coming from a family of artists and engineers, silver smiths and millwrights, and at least one movie stunt pilot, I have always recognized the value of thinking in pictures and the value of precision motion in 3D space.

But in the early days, my great puzzle always was how to bring visual talents to bear on conventional school subjects, especially in the early years. Visual talents are so often not understood or are misunderstood. The usual formal academic approaches did not seem to be appropriate. I finally settled on the notion that what would be most useful to readers would be to describe a more personal story – with a series of examples, as one problem and one discovery led to another series of observations and insights – those that in time resulted in my two earlier books, In the Mind’s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein.

Visual Thinking: Amazing Shortcomings, Amazing Gifts

During my historical research, I had learned about how visual thinking and visual-spatial talents (together with varied learning difficulties) seemed often to be associated with major scientific discoveries of the past.  However, I did not have to look long for current examples of major scientific discoveries. As sometimes happens, the examples and stories came to me – as in the case of the molecular biologist Bill Dreyer, who, in an interview, explained:

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

The passage above is excerpted from the oral history project at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. [5] The speaker is the late William J. Dreyer, Ph.D., who has been increasingly recognized as one of the major innovators in the early days of the biotech revolution that is now washing over all of us. In September 2007, one of his inventions was placed in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. -- the first gas-phase automated protein sequencer, which he patented in 1977. The sign over the machine on exhibit reads: “The Automated Gas-Phase Protein Sequencer: William J. Dreyer and the Creation of a New Technology.”

A strong visual thinker and dyslexic, Dreyer developed new ways of thinking about molecular biology. With his powerful visual imagination, he could somehow see the molecules interacting with each other. Sometimes he was almost entirely alone. He (with his colleague J. Claude Bennett) advanced new ideas based on new data about how genes recombine themselves to create the immune system.

These ideas turned out to be 12 years ahead of their time -- well ahead of everyone else in this emerging field. Most did not like this new theory because it conflicted with the conventional beliefs held by most experts in the field at the time. “It was so counter to the dogma of the time that nobody believed it,” his widow, Janet Dreyer, explained to me. Dreyer’s approach also used a form of scientific investigation (“peptide mapping”) with which most immunologists were then unfamiliar. “Knowing what we know now pretty much any biologist would look at Bill’s data and say that is what it has to mean. But few could understand it then,” she noted. However, gradually, they all learned to think the way Dreyer thought. Then, it was obvious that Dreyer (and Bennett) had to be right.

To See What Others Cannot See

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

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

Later, however, because of the further development of his then heretical ideas, William Dreyer could not get funding from academic or foundation sources for inventing and building his new instruments. His department head would get irate phone calls from professors from other institutions complaining about Dreyer’s publications and talks. He gave many talks at the time, making some attendees angry, although others could see the importance of his innovative observations.

“He was on the lecture circuit then and he [gave these talks] a lot.” Of course, these were not really unproven theories, explained his widow Janet. She pointed out that Dreyer was sure of his ground because he had the data to prove the veracity of his ideas. “It was not merely a hypothesis in that paper, it was real data.” However, it was data in a form so new and so alien that almost everyone in the field could not understand what he was talking about. In time, these professors, and all their students, came to see, much later, that William Dreyer had been right all along. [6]

Because he could not get funding from the usual sources, Dreyer went to private companies to manufacture his instruments -- something quite unusual and discouraged at the time  -- but now wildly popular among universities hoping for a share of large royalty payments. Seeing the potential for his inventions (and their scientific impact) but having a hatred of administration and corporate politics, Dreyer came to be, as he told me, the “idea man” for seven new biotech companies (including Applied Biosystems) and bought himself a high-altitude, pressurized, small airplane with some of the proceeds.

Years later, when Susumu Tonegawa was awarded a Nobel Prize (Physiology or Medicine, 1987) for work he had done in Switzerland, his innovative sequencing work proved (through experiments that were illegal in the US at the time) that Dreyer and his colleague had been correct in their predictions many years earlier. [7]

[End of excerpt. Seeing What Other Cannot See, 2017, pages 21-30.]

End Notes for Chapter One

[1] As Lovelock tells the story in the BBC documentary: In September 1965, Lovelock met with Carl Sagan and another astronomer, Lou Kaplan. They had sheets and sheets of computer paper showing a complete analysis of the Mars atmosphere. “What this analysis showed was that Mars had almost nothing but carbon dioxide. Just bare traces of other gases were present. And I knew immediately that this meant that Mars was probably lifeless. And at that moment, suddenly a thought came into my mind. But why is the Earth’s atmosphere so amazingly different?” This brief version of the story is supported by a much more detailed version from a long interview with Lovelock provided in “An Oral History of British Science” (in Partnership with The British Library) 2010.

[2] On YouTube, the BBC documentary titled “Beautiful Minds: James Lovelock.” Total time, 58:40. Lovelock’s non-specialist perspectives on science, the NASA Mars story and related stories begin at time mark 25:50. With Lovelock mostly speaking for himself, this documentary is rich with important details about his early life, his unusual education -- and how his unusual ways of thinking and working have led to major inventions and discoveries. Repeatedly we are told about how his “out of the box” and top down, big-picture thinking led to insights that other over-specialized scientists could not see or were unlikely to see. They are mostly trained and hired to focus on narrow problems -- so they have a hard time seeing the really big picture that requires the integration of knowledge and understanding of many related disciplines.

[3] Prof. Tim Lenton, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, quoted in BBC documentary, “Beautiful Minds: James Lovelock.”

[4] Makri, “Back to the Future,” summarizing, McMichael, Climate Change, 2017, Science, January 27, 2017, p. 355.

[5] William J. Dreyer, PhD, California Institute of Technology, Oral History Project, session one, tape 1, side1, interview of February 18, 1999 with Shirley K. Cohen, published by Caltech Archives 2005. (Available as PDF at Dreyer’s high interest in his own visual thinking is evident in his first introductory remarks at the beginning of the five days of interviews: “I was just at UCLA two days ago with people studying brain imaging. . . . They tended to want a uniform brain, with everyone having the same anatomy and thinking the same way. That isn’t at all true; it’s amazing how different people can be. And in particular the book that I loaned to you -- In the Mind’s Eye by Thomas G. West -- is about the only one I’ve ever seen that deals with the subject of people who have extreme visual imagery in the way they think. I wanted to preface all of this [set of interviews] with this little story, because . . . it has a profound implication.” The passage quoted above (“Amazing Gifts”) immediately follows Dreyer’s introductory statement. (It happens that the Jim Olds mentioned here is the father of another Jim Olds who was the former director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. Roger Sperry, Dreyer’s near lab neighbor, also mentioned in this quotation, was Caltech Hixon Professor of Psychobiology 1954-1984. Sperry was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981.)

[6] Janet Roman Dreyer, Ph.D., molecular biologist, second wife and widow of William J. Dreyer. Based on interview with Thomas G. West, June 28, 2005.

[7]  Tauber and Podolsky, Generation of Diversity, 1997, p. 207. In the words of Tauber and Podolsky, this page: “This experiment marked the point of no return for the domination of the antibody diversity question by nucleotide studies: it was Susumu Tonegawa’s final proof of the Dreyer-Bennett V-C translocation hypothesis through the use of restriction enzymes.”

Thursday, July 20, 2017

For the In the Mind's Eye blog. 

Below is information on my new book. Soon more text and images will appear in the new blog called Seeing What Others Cannot See. Please have a look there. -- TGW.

From Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, new book to be published July 11, 2017 --

Seeing What Others Cannot See

The Hidden Advantages of Visual Thinkers
and Differently Wired Brains

by Thomas G. West

For over 25 years, Thomas G. West has been a leading advocate for the importance of visual thinking, visual technologies and the creative potential of individuals with dyslexia and other learning differences. In this new book, he investigates how different kinds of brains and different ways of thinking can help to make discoveries and solve problems in innovative and unexpected ways. West focuses on what he has learned over the years from a group of extraordinarily creative, intelligent and interesting people -- strong visual thinkers and those with dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome, and other different ways of thinking, learning and working.

West shows that such people can provide important insights often missed by experts and professionals -- as they also can prevent institutional “group think.” Based on first-person accounts, West tells stories that include a dyslexic paleontologist in Montana, a special effects tech who worked for Pink Floyd and Kiss and who is now an advocate for those with Asperger’s syndrome, a group of dyslexic master code breakers in a British electronic intelligence organization, a Colorado livestock handling expert who has become a forceful advocate for those with autism and a family of visual thinkers and dyslexics in Britain that includes four winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. He also discusses persistent controversies and the unfolding science.

This is an inspiring book that not only documents the achievements of people with various learning differences, but also reveals their great potential. This potential is especially great in our new digital age where traditional clerical and academic skills are less and less important -- while an ability to see the big picture and to understand complex patterns revealed in high-level computer information visualizations is rapidly increasing in value in the global economic marketplace.

Thomas G. West is the author of the award-winning book In the Mind's Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics and the Rise of Visual Technologies and the highly acclaimed Thinking like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots with the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization. In the Mind’s Eye was awarded a gold seal and selected as one of the “best of the best” for the year by the Association of College and Research Libraries of the American Library Association. The book has been translated into Japanese, Chinese and Korean -- and West has provided presentations for scientific, medical, art, design, computer and business groups in the U.S. and 19 foreign countries.

West continues to lecture worldwide having given presentations to the Confederation of British Industry in London, the Netherlands Design Institute in Amsterdam, a meeting of 50 Max Planck Institutes in Göttingen, Germany, the Italian Dyslexia Association in Rome, the first “Diversity Day” conference for the staff of GCHQ, the code-making and code-breaking descendants of Bletchley Park (World War II code breakers), in Cheltenham, England, scientists and artists at Green College and at Magdalen College within Oxford University, England, the Royal College of Art in London, the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, a conference at the University of Uppsala before the Queen of Sweden, the University of California at Berkeley, an education conference sponsored by Harvard and MIT, the Arts Dyslexia Trust in London, an education conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a meeting of visualization scientists and artists sponsored by MIT and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Other presentations have included the Southwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, the Learning Disability Association of Taiwan, the international conference of computer graphic artists and technologists (ACM-SIGGRAPH) in Vancouver, BC, Canada, the International Symposium on Dyslexia in the Chinese Language organized by the Society of Child Neurology and Developmental Pediatrics in Hong Kong, the U.S. National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, the Aspen Institute in Colorado, Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California – and a Director's Colloquium for scientists and staff of NASA Ames Research Center (at Moffett Field in California’s Silicon Valley).

In November 2014, West was invited to give five talks for the Dyslexia Association of Singapore as part of a year-long, nation-wide effort to take advantage of the distinctive talents exhibited by dyslexic children and adults. Long a leader in technological and commercial innovation, Singapore plans to lead the world with this effort as well.

The second edition of In the Mind’s Eye includes a Foreword by the late Oliver Sacks, MD, who said “In the Mind's Eye brings out the special problems of people with dyslexia, but also their strengths, which are so often overlooked. . . . It stands alongside Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind as a testament to the range of human talent and possibility.” According to one reviewer: “Every once in a while a book comes along that turns one's thinking upside down. In the Mind's Eye is just such a book.”

Contact: Distribution for Prometheus Books is provided by Penguin Random House (

Note: This is the draft introduction for the book by Thomas G. West: Seeing What Others Cannot See -- The Hidden Advantages of Visual Thinkers and Differently Wired Brains (Prometheus Books).


Since my first book, In the Mind’s Eye, was published in 1991, I have had the privilege of providing presentations for many different kinds of organizations in the U.S. and in nineteen foreign countries. In the process, I have met and learned from, I like to say, some of the smartest, most creative and most interesting people on the planet. Many of them are dyslexic or they are, as described these days, “on the spectrum,” with Asperger syndrome or other learning differences. Still others are merely very strong visual thinkers -- people who habitually think in pictures (who may have troubles with words or numbers).
With this book, I will draw together some of the observations and stories that I have accumulated since In the Mind’s Eye was first published. In the first book, I took a scholarly approach with a great many references and notes to support my perspectives and arguments. With this book, I am taking a very different approach. I will be focusing on brevity and simplicity -- using a collection of short stories and excerpts, layering a world view with minimal explanation and discussion.
I hope that these stories and observations will help others to begin to see how important these visually oriented capabilities are for high-level work in many fields -- and how little they are understood and appreciated in traditional education and in conventional measures of intelligence and ability. I make no claim to special knowledge or expert status. I just want to share with visual thinkers and different thinkers what I have learned in the hope that it will help them along the way -- and in the hope that it might influence the direction of future research and practice.
Some forward-looking organizations have come to appreciate and value these visual capabilities, but most educators and employers seem to be stuck in old ways of thinking. (The psychologists say, “we have got it covered -- with our well-established ‘performance’ tests.” The artists, designers and visually oriented scientists say, “no, you have not even begun to see what we see.”)
Over centuries, we have built an academic system that relies mainly on words and numbers. However, we are now living at a time when powerful visualization technologies, together with emerging large-scale problems, are driving us toward a new realization of how much we need to develop a new kind of thinking -- and how much we need the kinds of people and the kinds of brains that have been marginalized in the past by the dominant specialist culture, mostly based on proficiency with words rather than images.
In the last few decades, the world has changed in important ways. And it is changing once again. We need to understand current trends and not be blinded by traditional beliefs and practices. When we take the long view, the trend lines appear to be quite obvious. But many professionals and experts are well trained to see and believe what they were taught to believe decades ago. In a time of major change it is really important to listen to people who can “see what others cannot see.”
When traveling with my first book, I would talk with scientists, physicians, designers, artists, inventors and others. They often made the remark that their dyslexic colleagues had a different way of looking at things and “they could see things that others could not see”-- whether in reference to an indefinite ultrasound or x-ray image or regarding a novel surgical procedure or the solution to an enduring scientific puzzle. At first, I came to believe that this capability was most often characteristic of those dyslexics who were also strong visual thinkers.
Later, I was surprised to hear the very same words used by an advocate talking to a group of high school students with Asperger syndrome. In the same vein, another advocate had written and discussed with me her own propensity to think in pictures -- seeing things in her work that others did not notice or think were important. Indeed, she had asked one researcher and writer, how do you think at all if you don’t see pictures in your mind?
Over the years, I heard similar observations hundreds of times in hundreds of different places. Gradually, I came to see that I was dealing with a pattern of consequence, one that many had observed in a variety of different fields. The cumulative effect was that I was handed an intriguing topic -- and a book title -- that I could no longer ignore.
It is apparent that visual thinkers seem to experience the world differently from non-visual individuals and other “neuro-typicals.” And this I believe, is a good thing -- although not usually recognized as such, especially in the early years of education. I have learned that for some people the easy things in primary school can be quite hard -- while the hard things in graduate school and in advanced work situations can be quite easy.
Over time, I have come to realize that I have had the considerable advantage of gaining a special perspective into remarkable parts of our world -- providing me with distinctive insights into diverse and alternative ways of thinking, learning and working -- all related, apparently, to observing things in a deeply original and perceptive manner.
It is often noted that some dyslexic scientists or entrepreneurs need only a brief mention of an idea or concept. They don’t need to read the rest of the report. They just think about it and all the implications and future problems and potentials become immediately apparent. They do not need a painful elaboration of the obvious.
As always, I have continued to rely mainly on stories and first-person accounts. I have come to trust them more than many conventional academic theories and studies based on large-scale surveys. I listen to what the affected individuals tell me. I believe they know what they are talking about. They live it every day. And I believe it is important to look at a whole individual life story to see how mixed strengths and weaknesses manifest themselves through time in changing economic and social circumstances. You can assemble the data and count the frequencies later; but you first must look at the individual life story, like a good medical history, to see the most important overall patterns. If you are mainly looking at many people using the established conventional tests, you may be measuring and counting the wrong things.
When one looks, as an outsider, at a century or two of evolving conventional thinking, you can see how often the winds have changed or have blown the wrong way. Looking back, it is often easy to see who was on the right track from the beginning -- and how long it has taken for the conventionally trained experts to abandon outdated beliefs.
These observations are especially true in regard to the different thinkers we focus on here. In a way, it is self-evident. If you see what others do not see or cannot see -- most will say that you are wrong or, in some way, a heretic. It is not pleasant for the conventional experts to see threatened the material that they have been teaching for many years -- or to have their books and articles suddenly become outdated or irrelevant. It is always so.
These stories and first person accounts have provided me with a set of primary sources that permit me to gain insights perhaps rarely otherwise available – and I hope these will be of interest to a wider audience. This approach is not unlike the style of the late Oliver Sacks, M.D. -- who kindly provided a Foreword and blurb for the second edition of In the Mind’s Eye.
Over these years, I have also been fortunate to meet a number of individuals who were eager to tell me their own life stories. Indeed, several individuals who have been at the very top of their fields -- including, for example, one of the leading individuals in the early development of modern molecular biology -- as well as a major figure in the emerging specialist field of pediatric surgery. Both of these individuals contacted me after reading my first book -- saying, in one way or another: “I read your book. You understand how I think. Others do not. I want to tell you my story.”
I have been surprised at the remarkable range of fields and occupations of those who have shown interest in these topics -- including scientific, medical, art, design, computer and entrepreneurial business groups. In many cases, attendees and contacts have shared with me observations that were, apparently, not generally known -- and sometimes well hidden.
In time, I found that these observations seemed to fit into a larger pattern, acknowledging the value of diverse minds and diverse brains – especially when this diversity is beginning to be highly valued in a time of rapid technological change and global economic competition. We are becoming more aware that we need something other than the conventional clerks or strong test takers or traditional narrow specialists -- although our educational system continues to train and select them.
Instead, I believe our very survival may depend on strong visual thinkers and practically-minded visionaries, those who think in different ways, those who see the larger patterns, those who seem to be able to see over the horizon and predict what is coming, those who naturally think in moving pictures by mental manipulation of three-dimensional shapes and forms -- increasingly aided by the newest integrative graphical computer technologies.
Remarkably, I have continued to be surprised at the serious interest in these perspectives among the most highly successful individuals. These individuals seem to immediately understand that high creativity and capabilities are often linked to visual thinking or to dyslexia, to Asperger syndrome or other learning differences. In general, strangely, it seems that Nobel Prize winners are highly interested in these perspectives -- whereas there appears to be very little interest among most teachers, school psychologists and educational administrators. They might find much more talent among their students if they knew how and where to look for it.
In many respects, Asperger syndrome (which I regard as still a useful term although some professional groups have recently discontinued its use) appears to be the complete opposite of developmental dyslexia. However, many individuals in both groups appear to share a strongly visual manner of thinking, a link that is not always obvious but could be extraordinarily important -- especially in an era when high-level work in many fields increasingly involves “scientific visualization” and visual analysis of complex information.
In addition to these powerful trends, it appears that, historically, many of the most creative and productive in regards to technological innovation and scientific discovery have been strong visual thinkers. In contrast, it appears that many non-visual thinkers may be very good at learning and applying old knowledge (and doing well on exams, often getting the top grades and the top jobs) but may be very poor at creating new knowledge or developing the broad and deep understanding so badly needed for modern, real-world challenges. What spelled success in the old specialist culture may very well generate major failures in the new.
In this book, I want to focus mainly on visual thinking -- and its considerable power in many different fields to understand relationships and novel solutions not often available in other ways. Among computer graphics folks, words and numbers are seen as the “thin pipe to the brain.” In contrast, they see computer graphics and information visualization as “the fat pipe to the brain.” I hope that this book will begin to illuminate what the “fat pipe” can do -- and how is changing the fundamentals of our world.
Mostly, I will be looking backward at some of what I have learned -- but I hope to look a little way forward as well. As we know, for years computers have been taking over low-level jobs. In more recent years, the newest and most powerful computers have played into the hands of visually oriented different thinkers -- providing powerful tools well suited to their mix of talents and special abilities.
However, the context is changing once again. Now in the early days of “deep learning,” we can expect shortly to see major effects on very high-level jobs as well. The machines are now learning to see patterns that only high-level, experienced professionals could see before. In some cases they have already surpassed human capabilities. This has long been expected. But after several false starts, it appears that the time has arrived. The effects are not yet entirely clear, but it is likely that these trends may require the distinctive talents of “different thinkers” once again. Then we will badly need to listen to those who “can see what others cannot see.”

From the quotations page of Seeing What Others Cannot See --
People with dyslexia are often regarded as defective, as missing something—a facility in reading or linguistic thinking—which the rest of us have. But those of us who are predominantly verbal or “lexical” thinkers could just as well be thought of as “avisuals.”
—Oliver Sacks, MD

I believe those of us with Asperger’s are here for a reason, and we have much to offer.
—John Elder Robison

Dyslexia is Britain’s secret weapon in the spy war: Top code breakers can crack complex problems. . . . Most people only get to see the jigsaw picture when it’s nearly finished while the dyslexic cryptographists can see what the jigsaw looks like with just two pieces.
—Statement from GCHQ official, July 2013

During residency, I recognized that I had dyslexia. And then I realized I had this gift for imaging. Radiology is where I belonged. I live in a world of patterns and images and I see things that no one else sees. Anomalies jump out at me like a neon sign. . . . I do have a gift that other people don’t have, and I will always stay ahead of the crowd and see more in an image than other people.
—Beryl Benacerraf, MD

Many of the most exciting new attempts to apply deep learning are in the medical realm. . . . While a radiologist might see thousands of images in his life, a computer can be shown millions. . . . “This image problem could be solved better by computers . . . just because they can plow through so much more data than a human could ever do.” The most remarkable thing about neural nets is that no human being has programmed a computer to perform any of [these] stunts. . . . In fact, no human being could. Programmers have, rather, fed the computer a learning algorithm, exposed it to terabytes of data—hundreds of thousands of images or years’ worth of speech samples—to train it, and have allowed the computer to figure out for itself how to recognize the desired objects. . . . In short, such computers can now teach themselves.
—Roger Parloff, Fortune magazine, October 2016

Draft back cover copy for Seeing What Others Cannot See by Thomas G. West

 “For twenty-five years Thomas G. West has been a leader in the movement to highlight the value and beauty of minds that see the world in non-typical ways. In Seeing What Others Cannot See, he presents his strongest case yet for the importance of recognizing, educating, and utilizing nonverbal strengths, and their special value in our contemporary world. Recommended for anyone interested in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, innovation and creativity, technology and education.”
—Brock Eide, MD, coauthor of The Dyslexic Advantage and The Mislabeled Child 

“In this fascinating book, Thomas G. West revisits and interprets his earlier theories in the light of ongoing changes in society, highlighting the importance and awareness of positive aspects of dyslexia by contrast with the traditional deficit approach. Here he extends his thinking to include a novel evaluation of Asperger’s, drawing links between distinctive visual thinkers in both groups in a series of compelling case studies. West argues most persuasively for greater emphasis on the power of visual literacy and the need for new tools to evaluate these strengths throughout life, to meet the challenging demands of our modern environment.”
—Angela Fawcett, PhD, editor, Asia Pacific Journal of Developmental Differences and former editor Dyslexia. Emeritus Professor, Swansea University.

“People who think in pictures have contributed greatly to both scientific discovery and artistic expression. Thomas G. West carefully documents their abilities. Our education system needs to change from an emphasis on deficits to the development of a student’s strengths.”
—Temple Grandin, PhD, author, Thinking in Pictures and The Autistic Brain

“Thomas G. West argues convincingly that dyslexics and related intellectuals seem to fail in elementary school learning while excelling at the broader level of graduate school. Many whose stories he recites were smashing successes in business. West urges that this is because of extra gifts in visual learning and thinking. He goes beyond praising dyslexics’ hidden strengths in visual thinking and learning, their ability to see what others cannot see—he demands that we stop hiding the imaginative strengths of all children under their weaknesses in reading.”
—Donald Lindberg, MD, Director Emeritus, National Library of Medicine

“In Singapore, we have certainly met many individuals with dyslexia who have talents that many do not see. Like Tom West, we would like everyone to emphasize and develop the strengths of those with learning differences rather than focus on their weaknesses.  This is so that society can benefit from the incredible gifts of those with dyslexia.”
-- Lee Siang, CEO, Dyslexia Association of Singapore

Thomas G. West is the author of the award-winning book In the Mind’s Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics and the Rise of Visual Technologies, which was selected as an Outstanding Academic Title and one of the “best of the best” for the year by Choice magazine, a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries division of the American Library Association. He is also the author of Thinking like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots with the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization. West lectures worldwide and has given presentations to such institutions as the Confederation of British Industry; the Netherlands Design Institute; the Max Planck Institutes in Gottingen, Germany; the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey; the Aspen Institute in Colorado; Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California; and the NASA Ames Research Center.

Cover image © arosoft/Shutterstock. Cover design by Liz Mills. Cover © Prometheus Books.