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 http://oralhistories.library.caltech.edu/108/.) 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.”

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