Lamar Smith’s new frontiers: On the science of dyslexia and a mission to Mars

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (NASA)

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (NASA)

Good morning Austin:

Rep. Lamar Smith chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He is also the new co-chair of the House Dyslexia Caucus. Last night, Smith, who is from San Antonio and whose district includes a slice of Austin, was at the Scottish Rite Temple for the showing of Dislecksia: The Movie. The movie, which is in equal measure hugely informative, moving and entertaining, was directed by Harvey Hubbell V, who grew up dyslexic at a time when schools and society tended to simply identify as stupid those with a learning disability (and many still do) – or, as it is increasingly described now, a learning difference. It’s a difference in the way the brain works that can imbue the individual with dyslexia with an outside-the-box way of seeing the world and thinking that can ultimately be as much a blessing as the struggle to learn to read and write can be a curse.

Harvey Hubbell V

Harvey Hubbell V

In a 2013 interview, Hubbell said, “What’s interesting is that there are genetic components in dyslexia, so many people in my family could be dyslexic. My great-grandfather invented the wall socket. From that same family of 10 kids came Carl Hubbell, the baseball player who invented the knuckle ball. Also, Edwin Hubble, who they named the space telescope after because he figured out that the universe was expanding.”

 

Dislecksia: The Movie

Dislecksia: The Movie

History is replete with renowned dyslexics, like Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, and also more contemporary figures like Virgin Airlines’ Richard Branson, surgeon/potential Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, Vince Vaughn, Billy Bob Thornton and Ari Emanuel, brother of Rahm and model for Ari Gold, the very ADD agent on the HBO show, Entourage. I know about the last five names on that list, because they were among the dyslexics-made-very-good honored by the extraordinary Lab School of Washington, where my son, Dylan went to school from second grade through graduation. He is now teaching first grade in Washington.

Billy Bob Thornton and Harvey Hubbell

Billy Bob Thornton and Harvey Hubbell

Last night’s program, which included the screening and panel discussion, was sponsored in part by:

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith with Heather Hardemann, co-founder of Austin's Dyslexia Parent Network

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith with Heather Hardemann, co-founder of Austin’s Dyslexia Parent Network

Decoding Dyslexia – http://www.decodingdyslexia.net/
Decoding Dyslexia – Texas – http://www.decodingdyslexiatx.org/
Dyslexia Parent Network Austin – https://www.facebook.com/dyslexia.parent.network
Scottish Rite Theater – http://scottishritetheater.org/about
Tugg Inc. – https://www.tugg.com/

Before the screening, Smith briefly addressed the audience, noting Hubbell’s relationship – the difference in spelling notwithstanding – to the man for whom the telescope is named. Said Smith:

Rep. Lamar Smith and Waylon Hardemann, who envies his brother's dyslexia

Rep. Lamar Smith and Waylon Hardemann, who envies his brother’s dyslexia

A number of years ago the scientists who were running the Hubble, just out of intellectual curiosity, pointed the Hubble at this dark speck of sky where nothing was thought to exist, totally black, totally void, a speck of sky so small that if you held a penny at arm’s length, Abraham Lincoln’s eye, which  you can hardly see, would cover that dark speck of sky. Over a period of couple of weeks, they would point the camera at that same dark speck of sky and they would expose film for several hours, and then when they developed the film, in that tiny speck of sky they discovered 3,000 points of light and each point of light was not a star but a galaxy, which consists  of an average of 200 billion stars. And so in that tiny speck of sky where nothing was thought to exist there were 3,000 points of light times 200 billion.

Sometimes I choke up, when I say that, sometimes, when things are dark and bleak, if you look long enough, you will see the light that was always there.

 

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (NASA)

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (NASA)

And, indeed, Smith was choking up.

In September, Smith held the first-ever congressional hearing on The Science of Dyslexia.

Here from his opening statement:

One out of every five people struggle with dyslexia in its various forms. In fact, it is the most common reading disability in America. Yet many Americans remain undiagnosed, untreated, and silently struggle with school or work.

People with dyslexia think in a way that others do not. But typically in our school systems today there is not recognition, early detection, or enough teachers who are trained to spot symptoms of dyslexia early enough to get the students the intervention they need. That is why we have recently seen grass-roots groups, like Decoding Dyslexia, from nationwide and more specialized schools started to fill the void. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to these types of
schools and the learning strategies they instill in their students to help them become successful.

I hope today’s hearing will serve two purposes. First, contribute to our understanding as policy
– makers about the neuroscience of dyslexia. And secondly, build awareness of dyslexia’s effect on those of all ages if we fail to diagnose it. Some may ask why the Science Committee chooses to tackle the issue of dyslexia. My response is simple: many scientists, innovators and other outside-the
-box thinkers are dyslexic, such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo, to name a few.

Many who have dyslexia have used their unique outlook on the world to their advantage. Filmmakers, actors and entertainers such as Steven Spielberg, Henry Winkler, and Jay Leno used their gift to create one-of -a-kind entertainment for us all to enjoy. In modern times, Dr. Carol Greider of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who won the Nobel Prize in 2009, has dyslexia. John Chambers, the long-time CEO of Cisco Systems, also has dyslexia.

In a recent interview, Chambers spoke about his struggles with dyslexia, saying: “It would surprise you how many government and business leaders [have] dyslexia. Some people view it as a weakness and maybe it is… Because of my weakness I’ve learned other ways to accomplish the same goal with faster speed. So in math, I can do equations faster by eliminating the wrong answers quicker than I can get the right answer. It’s one of the reasons I talk to young people with dyslexia pretty regularly. You have to have role models.”

We need to unleash the intelligence of people with dyslexia, like Einstein, da Vinci, Carol Greider, and
John Chambers. We cannot afford for young, talented students not to reach their potential. I am glad to see the National Science Foundation fund studies in how astrophysicists with dyslexia view the universe differently due to the visual-spatial skills common in dyslexics. In fact, Matt Mountain, the
lead astronomer and director of the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, has dyslexia.

I asked Smith after the screening what first drew his attention to dyslexia. He said it was Jennifer Brown, who has been with him throughout his career in Congress and is now the chief of staff for both his office and the Science Committee. (Her husband, Barry Brown, now a lobbyist, was formerly chief of staff for two other members of Congress from Texas – Reps. Michael Burgess and Kay Granger.)

“She has a ten-year-old son, Leighton, now 10, and when he was diagnosed, if that’s the word, with dyslexia, three or four years ago, honestly I read every book I could get my hands on just to be of help to the family and help to him. Here’s a young child that I see on a regular basis that I really like.”

In fact, Smith said, “Jennifer was out of town this last weekend and  Barry had the kids so I took both Leighton and (his eight-year-old sister) Gibson all Saturday afternoon when I was in D.C. and we were in my office and I had projects for them and toys for them, and we went over to the Cannon (House Office) Building and we went to the rotunda and shot off balloon rockets.”

Really. You can do that?

“Well, the Capitol police did come check on us, especially when a couple exploded like gunfire, they did come and check on us, but that was OK. But I think we set a record that will never be broken, one of those rocket balloons, just as it ran out of air, touched the ceiling, 90 feet up. That record will never be broken.”

Probably not.

Of last September’s first-of-its-kind hearing, Smith said, “It wasn’t a stretch, but when you chair the Science Committee, you can say “the science of” anything, and get into the subject of the “science of dyslexia.” Normally health would be under the Energy and Commerce Committee, but we can think creatively just like dyslexic kids, so we called it “the science of dyslexia.'”

Here was the witness lineup:

Panel 1:
Hon. Bill Cassidy, Member, U.S. House of Representatives
Hon. Julia Brownley,  Member, U.S. House of Representatives

Panel 2:
Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development, Yale University School of Medicine and Co-Director, Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, Yale University
Mr. Max Brooks, Author and Screenwriter
Ms. Stacy Antie, Parent and Advocate
Dr. Peter Eden, President, Landmark College
Dr. Guinevere Eden, Director, Center for the Study of Learning (CSL)  and Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Georgetown University Medical Centery

Going into the hearing, Smith said, “We had real anxiety, we had real trepidation about going forward with the hearing because it was the first time a hearing was held on dyslexia. We didn’t know if anybody was going to come. We didn’t know if we were going to be criticized for having it, whether it was going to be successful or not. But the appointed hour comes and literally, standing room only. And furthermore, of the 99 hearings we held in the last two years, this hearing registered more likes on Facebook than any of the other hearings.”

Smith said he intends to craft legislation dealing with dyslexia, but it is too soon to know exactly what it would look like.

“Not yet, we’re going to gather information, exchange ideas with the dyslexic community and come up with some possibilities, to see what we can do. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves because there’s so many ways you can go. As I said tonight, there’s not so much a knowledge gap as an action gap. We’re going to try to fill some of that action gap if we can. Most of the education is done on the local and state level, you can’t change that, so you’ve got to find other angles.”

I also asked Smith about what he thought about a manned mission to Mars.

“Well, it’s going to be a step by step process. I wish the president would come out and make a speech similar to the one JFK did in 1961, `We’re going to put an astronaut on the moon.’ I think it would really rivet the public’s attention, if he did and said, `We’re going to send astronauts to Mars by 2021.'”

“It so happens that between 2018 and 2021, Mars and Earth are closer to each other, so it would save six months – a two month round trip is a year-and-a-half round trip. But he’s not going to do it. Instead he’s talking about this asteroid retrieval mission, although that seems to be sinking below the waves because NASA’s own advisory committee recommended against it. So we’re not going to do it. We’re going to miss the opportunity to do it in 2021.”

“When I say sending astronauts to Mars, it would be a fly by and then, to be followed by landing. We have not-insurmountable challenges, but we have no more challenges today than we had with Apollo. The challenges today are the dangers of radiation, which can be lethal, and we haven’t figured out how to put astronauts in space that distance, that long, without being killed. You have the problem of taking food and water for a year-and-a-half, and the weight problems with that. So you’ve got a lot of problems, but when JFK said we are going to the moon, nobody knew how that was going to happen, but again, it’s a little bit moot because the president is not going to say that, but I hope a future president will say that.”

I asked about Mars One, the private effort to send manned missions on a one-way journey to Mars – with crews of four departing every two years, beginning in 2024 – with the hope of establishing a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet.

“More power to the private efforts,”Smith said, “but the only private efforts are the one-way trip, which doesn’t sound appealing and right now is totally hypothetical. It’s not going to happen. I think it’s more of a publicity stunt than a realistic proposal.”

“I think when we go to Mars, because of the cost involved, it’s going to have to be, at least in part, paid for by the federal government. You’ve got private industry going into low-Earth orbit, 62 miles up, and charging a quarter of a million dollars to people, and that’s far more likely than any trip to Mars anytime soon.”

“By the way,” Smith said. “I’d love to go into low-Earth orbit, but so far my wife has said she would veto that.”

With that, Smith departed on his journey back to San Antonio.

Meanwhile, Mars One, recently winnowed its list of 200,000 applicants to 100 candidates, including Sonia Van Meter, who last year moved from Austin to Alexandria, Va., just outside D.C., with her husband, Jason Stanford.

Since her selection as among the 100 finalists, Van Meter has emerged as a poised media presence, and, it seems, the aspiring Martian most likely to succeed

Here is Sonia’s original interview video.

And here are links to a few of her many interviews with Jezebel, with Time,  To the Point, KVET,  Voices of Texas, the Daily Dot, CNN, BBC and, below, her appearance with Larry Willmore on the Nightly Show.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Ted Cruz, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Science, Space and Competitiveness, like Smith, would like Obama to press forward on a manned mission to Mars.
But, we close First Reading today, with Cruz being brought down to earth in an appearance earlier this week, before a group of firefighters in Washington.From Todd Gillman at the Dallas Morning News:

WASHINGTON – Turns out, union firefighters may not be core supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz.

One applause line after another – when he’s addressing a friendly group of conservatives – drew dead silence Tuesday morning at the International Association of Firefighters Legislative Conference and Presidential Forum.

Repeal “executive amnesty.” The joke about the Texas definition of gun control (“hitting what you aim at”). Silence.

Abolish the IRS? Crickets. Though the follow-up– a joke about sending all those IRS agents to the U.S.-Mexico border — drew scattered chuckles.

With a friendly audience like the one Cruz enjoyed at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month, those lines are surefire winners.

 Below is a compilation video of Cruz’s lines leaving his audience utterly silent. Who knew that firefighters – or any audience for that matter – could stay quite that quiet.

Then again, here from Breitbart,  is a report on Cruz being relatively well-received at the Iowa Ag Summit over the weekend for telling an audience what it supposedly didn’t want to hear.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) attended the Iowa Ag Summit over the weekend and stood alone among attendees in his outright rejection of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the ethanol subsidies that have a significant impact on Iowa’s agricultural economy. The Texas Senator appeared along with several other prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidates. Despite the obvious risk of opposing the RFS at an event sponsored by the agriculture industry in a critical early primary state, Cruz was unequivocal in voicing his opposition to the RFS and the crowd applauded his comments.

Many conservative groups have criticized the RFS as crony capitalism, also noting that it has failed to be the promised panacea to America’s dependence on foreign oil or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plus the problematic corrosive effects that ethanol-blended gasoline can have on engines in automobiles and power tools.

Cruz’s remarks drew applause from the audience and praise from a number of conservative media outlets. Joel Gehrke at National Review noted that Cruz had “managed to turn a disagreement with a crowd of Iowa businesses and farmers into an applause line,” and noted that the audience’s applause after his comments about the RFS gave Cruz “the warmest welcome so far” that day.

Hot Air blogger Jazz Shaw called the question of whether to support the RFS “a test of character for the nascent candidates on a matter of vital interest,” and praised Cruz’s strong and independent voice on the issue, describing his comments as a “potential game changer,” in his opinion:I’ve expressed doubts in the past about the long term viability of Ted Cruz on the national stage, particularly given the horribly effective way the media has sold the “crazy wingnut” stories to the public. But this guy has demonstrated the kind of intestinal fortitude that is far too often lacking in GOP leaders, and he certainly showed those qualities once again in Iowa. Take this as a benchmark for the coming campaign.

And, as David Weigel at Bloomberg noted after Cruz bombed with the firefighters,  Of course, Cruz has gotten worse receptions on purpose.