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 dyslexics and visual thinkers 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 reveals their great potential -- especially in a new digital age where traditional clerical and academic skills are less and less important while an ability to think in pictures and to understand patterns using high-level computer information visualizations is rapidly increasing in value in the global economic marketplace.
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Seeing What Others Cannot See
The Hidden Advantages of Visual Thinkers and Differently Wired Brains
By Thomas G. West
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2017 Thomas G. West
All rights reserved.
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 determine whether 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" evoking 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 from Earth the gases of Mars. 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.
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 Earth has remained habitable for life. If Earth was warm enough for life long ago, how are we not now "boiling"? Lovelock asked himself, how was this possible? How could 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 the planet — and this, in turn, was regulating the temperature of the planet 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 Earth from the "top down" as a whole, not just from the perspective of one scientific discipline or another. Because of his rather unconventional career, Lovelock was famous for having knowledge and experience in many different disciples, as well as experience with 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, in which 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.
* * *
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."
Lovelock has always been 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 and tinkerer, and he had a great knowledge of the world of nature. Now 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 several 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 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 concern about the CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) 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 by 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 by 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. ... This way, he says, there may be a chance to activate the "fight or flight" response that befits this threat to our survival.
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 cultures that are vastly different — 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 in 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 twenty subject individuals seem like nothing when compared to social media, which can easily and rapidly survey thousands or millions.)
It seems clear that recent educational reforms (and more recent reforms of the reforms) in the United States 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 twenty-five 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, silversmiths, 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 3-D 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. The speaker is the late William J. Dreyer, PhD, 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, DC — 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 twelve 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. William 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," Janet 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 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, his fellow students 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 William Dreyer realize that 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, 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 later 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. 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 thirty-three. 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. Furthermore, his department head would get irate phone calls from professors from other institutions complaining about Dreyer's publications and talks. Dreyer gave many talks at the time that made 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 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. Much later, these professors, and all their students, came to see that William Dreyer had been right all along.
Excerpted from Seeing What Others Cannot See by Thomas G. West. Copyright © 2017 Thomas G. West. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: Seeing the Whole, 21,
Chapter Two: V isual Perspectives, 53,
Chapter Three: Seeing Along the Spectrum, 69,
Chapter Four: The Power of Design, 91,
Chapter Five: Those Who Can See, 101,
Chapter Six: Insiders, Outsiders, 119,
Chapter Seven: Seeing and Technology, 133,
Chapter Eight: Visual Families and Nobel Prizes, 151,
Chapter Nine: Conclusion, 181,
Copyright Acknowledgments, 203,
Appendix A: Letter from Delos Smith, 205,
Appendix B: Dyslexic Advantage — Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, 213,
Appendix C: Sources of Information, 217,
Appendix D: Postscript, 221,