by Thomas G.West

Computer Graphics
Volume 34 Number

4 November 2000

from SigGraph Website


Our Wits versus Their Genes

“The future of humanity and microbes likely will unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be titled Our Wits versus Their Genes.” [1]

— 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] 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 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.” [3]

— 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 ways.


We must use our wits…and we can never stop.

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.



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-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.” [2]

(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 going on.

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 areas.



Around the 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 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. 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....”


Brilliant Flashes

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 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. 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 experts.


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 Rodenbeck.