by Thomas G.West
Volume 34 Number
4 November 2000
Our Wits versus Their
“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
“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
VR] 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
“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 from the story
“Savior of the Plague Years 1996-2020,” Wired Scenarios
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 and that they are essential to our lives and
our world. In addition, latterly we have learned to think more in
terms of ecology than warfare.
Yet we now also know that we can never
stop finding new ways to protect ourselves from their occasional
pathological outbreaks (and our own stupidity). We can never adapt
through our own genes as quickly as they can - so we must find other
We must use our wits…and we can never
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 story excerpted here. This story has stayed with
me, returning to my 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
SIGGRAPH members and readers of Computer Graphics.
On the surface, the story seems to revolve around a bold, and almost
comical, idea - that of the world being saved by a digital artist
during a time of global plague, where small surviving colonies are
linked by a diminished yet functional Internet. Yet the idea gains
credibility, as behind the story lies a greater issue - one which
we’ve been dealing with for some time in this column and elsewhere.
That is, of course, do the skills, the
technologies, the kinds of mind and the special experience of the
digital artist lend themselves 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 with greater weight than many
volumes of factual material.
Considering the enduring importance of
the topic, it would appear that it could be of interest to many
beyond the comparatively small world of computer graphics.
I had long admired the Wired Scenarios’ story because it
seemed to capture in a few words (and provocatively doctored
photographs), my own long-term 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 required is knowledge of a lot of facts, and the ability 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 idea.
However, the literature on creativity has long observed that the
most important thing is seeing the big patterns and seeing the novel
and unexpected solutions. For this, it is often the outsider who has
the advantage of seeing 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 relatively
commonplace. Albert Einstein relied more on his mental
images than the kinds of mathematics used by his associates.
(Indeed, as he became a better mathematician, some argue that his
creativity became considerably diminished, as his approach became
more mathematical and less visual.)
One mathematician of the period,
David Hilbert, a great admirer of Einstein’s work, came close to
some of the early basic insights involved in general relativity.
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.” 
(Quoted in West, In the Mind’s
Eye, 1997, p. 122)
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
VR (Virtual Reality) simulations of the microbes, the artist
could visualize directly the various structures, without having to
rely on years of training to build a crude mental image of what was
It is quite easy to imagine that discoveries such as this may be
routinely expected once high-quality VR and high bandwidth
Internet connections become widely and inexpensively available.
A lot of unrecognized talent could come
quickly and unexpectedly into play.
Of course, in the end, you need the
experts and the outsiders along with 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 near 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
World in 80 Hours
In his Science essay, Dr. Lederberg points 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
There is greater crowding making disease
transmission between individuals easier. Continued destruction of
forests brings greater contact with disease-carrying animals and
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
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. 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
Consequently, 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 most probably lie ahead. We know
more, but our economic and political successes may create enormous
future problems. But we may take some heart in expecting that the
spread of new visualization technologies may 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 their
potential to be true global heroes if the worst were to happen.
Accordingly, we have learned to think more in terms of ecology than
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. We have to use our wits, and learn to bring to bear all
the forms of intelligence and inventiveness we can muster -
especially those of us in the visualization field who might be best
suited to seeing patterns and structures that might be missed by the
We need to search a broader field with
greater success - because we can never stop.
1. Lederberg, Joshua. “Infectious
History,” Science, 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.
2. West, Thomas G. In the Mind’s Eye — Visual Thinkers, Gifted
People with Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer
Graphics and the Ironies of Creativity, Amherst, NY: Prometheus
Books, 1997, pp.122.
3. Wired. “Savior of the Plague Years 19962020,” Wired
Scenarios, special supplement to Wired magazine, Fall 1995, pp.
84. By the staff of Wired magazine. Image manipulation by Eric