but among them was his ability to remember and organize, aided only by the simplest of paper and pencil records, a huge body of spatially referenced observations. His nephew, John Phillips, wrote of William Smith: “A fine specimen of this ammonite was here laid by a particular tree on the road’s side, as it was large and inconvenient for the pocket, according to the custom often observed by Mr. Smith, whose memory for localities was so exact that he has often, after many years, gone direct to some hoard of nature to recover his fossils.” [emphasis added] (from Memoirs of William Smith by John Phillips cited in Winchester, 2001, p. 270).
Physical oceanographers and marine geochemists envision water moving along the “great ocean conveyor belt” of density-driven ocean currents (Broecker, 1991). Atmospheric physicists envision a spiraling pattern of air currents in latitudinally bounded bands. Geophysicists envision mantle rising beneath ridge crests and sinking at subduction zones. Today’s students have brightly colored textbook drawings and animated web sites to help them visualize these complex three-dimensional flows. The first thinkers to envision these flows, which cannot be seen literally even in part by human eyes, must have made gigantic leaps of spatial thinking.
For these pioneer thinkers, to what extent did the visualization grow from data and to what extent from understanding of causative processes? The simplistic notion is that one collects a mass of data about the distribution of some property or process, combines the data into a mental picture or computer-aided visualization, and then interprets it. This may understate and underestimate the skill of a spatial thinker.