A screenshot from the turning the pages interactive shown highlighting the UUU cell on the chart.

A Tribute to Nirenberg—George Thoma

On March 17, 2015, the National Library of Medicine held a special event, A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg,” the first of a “triplet” of events at NIH being held to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his deciphering of the genetic code. View the event here. The program included presentations from his wife, Dr. Myrna Weissman, scholars, and Library staff. Circulating Now interviewed the presenters and today we hear from Dr. George Thoma.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do?

A portrait of George Thoma speaking.George Thoma: I came to the Lister Hill National Center 40 years ago from Philadelphia where I had started working for General Electric after getting a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. At GE, I designed “earth stations”—the equipment on the ground that sends, receives and processes communication signals through satellites. I came to NLM to help design similar earth stations for a new “telemedicine” project intended to link several remote sites in Alaska, Washington, Montana and Idaho through a satellite to important medical centers such as the University of Washington in Seattle or the NIH. The bottom line: long distance video relayed through satellites did significantly improve health care delivery (as well as training for health workers) when these rural workers can communicate face to face with doctors and other experts at established medical facilities.

My subsequent work for 30 years has mainly been in image processing, applied both to documents as well as medical images. This has included the development of algorithms for the extraction of information from images. The processing of medical images has spawned a number of projects and systems. One is the Kenya X-ray Project where our software automatically detects TB and other lung diseases in chest x-rays taken in rural Western Kenya. The idea is to screen large populations with little or no access to radiology services. Another project, Open-i (pronounced open eye), is now a public service of NLM in which a user may search for relevant images or text from 900,000 open-access medical articles and 2.5 million illustrations (clinical images, graphs, charts, etc.)—by both text and image queries. I also manage the Library’s Turning the Pages (TTP) project which presents digitized images of rare books and manuscripts in an interactive format with supplemental information. The Nirenberg Genetic Code Chart is the newest document included in this project. All these efforts have been encouraged and supported by NLM Director, Dr. Lindberg, as well as by every Lister Hill Center director over these many years—for which I remain truly grateful.

CN: Turning the Pages is a great project that provides the public with the virtual experience of holding some of the world’s rarest documents in their hands, how did you get started with this?

A wood and metal cabinet with a touch screen interface and larger viewing screen.
The Turning the Pages kiosk installed in the NLM’s Visitor Center.

GT: In 2000, urged by Kent Smith, the NLM deputy director at the time, I took a trip to the British Library to look at their Turning The Pages (TTP) system. I was accompanied by Joe Fitzgerald, the enormously talented artist (now retired) in the Lister Hill Center’s Audiovisual Program and Development Branch. We couldn’t possibly turn down a trip to enjoy London in the summer! Our idea was to understand the technologies they were using, and perhaps negotiate for their software that we could use to create a TTP for rare medical books at NLM. Though our hosts were most welcoming and genial, I was unable to persuade them to reveal anything about the technology. Later we learned that a contractor in London actually created the software, but we did not know that at the time. So on our return, a group of us (including Dr. Glenn Pearson, now retired) analyzed the problem, developed a computer model for an electronic book, and designed the animation software from scratch—to come up with a touch-sensitive system that we installed in two kiosks at NLM. The books continue to be ‘touched and turned’ by numerous visitors to the Library. We have since developed additional software to expand TTP to a website as well as create mobile apps. Mike Chung was the principal developer of most of this software and continues to improve it, and add more books to the collection.

An exciting recent development was including the first surgical papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, in the TTP project. This was a collaboration, thanks to NLM’s Rare Book and Early Manuscript curator, Michael North, with the New York Academy of Medicine which owns the document. This involved developing a computer model for a scroll, quite different from a ‘book,’ and the special animation software that allows a patron to ‘touch and unroll.’

CN: The Library has made Turning the Pages experiences for several rare books and manuscripts but the Nirenberg Genetic Code Chart is a different format, what were some of the technical challenges to adapting the program to this document?

GT: The Turning the Pages implementation of the Nirenberg Genetic Code Chart required completely new software to be developed in javascript and Cascading Style Sheets or CSS. CSS is a language used to describe the look and formatting of a website. As the chart is just one page and requires no ‘page turning’ animation, but rather presents the need to ‘dig deeply’ into a large image, we developed it similarly to an online map: think Google Maps. This allows the user to zoom deeply into the chart and pan over it, as well as interact with clickable regions on the chart for curators’ notes and commentary, as well as photographs and other images.

A screenshot from the turning the pages interactive shown highlighting the UUU cell on the chart.
Here the Turning the Pages interactive provides information about the entry UUU, which is the three-letter shorthand method or “code word” for identifying phenylalanine, one of the complex proteins that drive living processes.

CN: The Library’s Turning the Pages project is 14 years old; with the rapid increase of the complete digitization of Library materials and the public’s increasing expectation of digitized materials, what keeps Turning the Pages relevant today?

GT: Despite the digitization of documents everywhere in the world, the ‘look and feel’ of such images does not generally approximate the tactile and intimate relationship one has with physical books and documents, especially those that are rare, historic, and beautifully illustrated. TTP comes close to that experience, perhaps accounting for the four million pageviews a year, over 10,000 unique visitors per month, and thousands of downloads of our mobile app. Additionally, the interactive experience is augmented with detailed interpretive information allowing users to get a guided tour from knowledgeable historians, which makes the complex content of these rare documents come to life.

CN: On this 50th anniversary of Nirenberg’s discovery what would you like readers to understand about his work?

GT: What people can gain by a study of Dr. Nirenberg’s chart is an idea of how scientific discovery happens. Rather than one ‘aha’ moment, discovery is more often a gradual evolution from a first fundamental step to the next idea and so on. This sequence of steps is not readily apparent from the paper chart to intelligent and educated laypersons, or even to scientists outside this particular discipline. But with the excellent curation provided in this case, the software powering the electronic version of the chart allows an easy path to navigate this evolution and glimpse the scientific brain at work.

Stay tuned all this week as Circulating Now brings you interviews with the presenters of “A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg.”

This article is part of a series that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Genetic Code Charts. Stay tuned throughout the year to learn more about Marshall Nirenberg and these ground breaking documents.

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