Imagination, Zombies & the Trappings of Science

by Shane L. Larson

I am often asked by worried parents and struggling students what is the most important quality in a successful scientist — stunning math ability? frightening intelligence? inscrutable intuition?  I usually go with the old classic, “Imagination.”  Einstein himself famously thought the same thing, having told the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

As a scientist, I find imagination is an essential tool for problem solving.  When faced with a puzzling conundrum posed by an interesting experiment, it is the imaginative side of my brain that makes connections to the stew of scientific knowledge that has been poured into my brain as part of my continuing education.  In astronomy, imagination is among the most powerful tools a scientist can use to understand the Cosmos.  Why?  Because the size and scale of the Cosmos are, for the most part, on scales that are beyond our everyday experience and challenge the limits of ordinary human comprehension.

Imagine you and I wanted to embark on a voyage of discovery.  We agree to meet next Saturday in Salt Lake City, and plan to drive to the Florida Everglades to collect the most exquisite flower we can find.  We take your 1963 Dodge Dart to insure we obey the speed limit.  The Everglades are 2570 miles away from Salt Lake City, so if we average 60 miles per hour on our journey, it will take us 86 hours to journey to that far-away place and return home to tell the tale.  The following week we decide to embark on another grand voyage of discovery, this time to bring a rock back from the Moon.  As the astronomer Fred Hoyle once noted, “Space is only an hour away, if you could drive straight up.”  And indeed it is; the boundaries of the fragile skin of air that covers the Earth, the shores of the Cosmic Ocean, are just sixty miles over our heads.  The Moon is our closest cosmic companion, but it is still much farther away.  To drive there at 60 mph (in your magic flying Dodge Dart) would take us 166 days one way.  To reach the Sun, 93 million miles away, would take 177 years.  And the stars are farther away still.

There are few places in the Cosmos that we can visit.  Our contemplations of the Cosmos are in many ways limited to what we can imagine, informed by what we can observe.  All we can do is observe the Universe around us, and then imagine how what we have seen can be explained by the laws of Nature.  The mysteries of what we see challenge the limits of what we understand, but over time more observations reveal Nature’s grand design and our knowledge grows by a small measure, expanding the legacy of our curious species.

My imagination works in other ways as well.  For instance, I suffer from a well known academic malady known as “impostor syndrome.” If you have this affliction, you imagine that you are unworthy of the job, position or status that you hold.  You have convinced yourself that you are an intellectual fraud, and that you have put on the smarmiest used-car salesman schtick imaginable to arrive at your position in life today.  The smallest piece of data reinforces the conviction of your impostor status: a colleague or department head fails to return an email, a grant proposal is rejected, on your teaching evaluations you only score 3.5/6.0 on the question “Professor remembers to wear matching socks.”  As a consequence, you try work your ass off for fear of being discovered for the fraud and joker that you are.  This makes your more frazzled and likely to be discovered, and on your next teaching evaluations you score 2.5/6.0 on the question “Professor lectured on physics not social justice in pre-revolutionary France.”

It is this destructive form of imagination that is perhaps the most interesting.  Imagine that while on our long voyage in your Dodge Dart we decide to watch movies to pass the time. Many scientists have difficulty watching movies that ignore fundamental scientific tenets, or have logic holes in the plot.  I do not suffer from these difficulties; I am perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief and watch any movie you want to watch (except “Beaches”).  Curiously, however, some movies freak me out, and others don’t.  I can totally watch zombie movies without worry and when I’m done, turn out the lights and sleep peacefully.  However if you plunk me down in front of a Wes Craven nightmare movie, then I think harder about the wisdom of turning any light in the house off, and make sure the blankets are securely tucked up around my neck to protect my jugular from any bloodthirsty beasts from the Abyss that might be invisibly roaming around my house.

What gives?  Why don’t zombies freak me out, but ghosts plunge me into a paroxysm of fear?  Because there is an ostensible “scientific” explanation for the emergence of the zombie apocalypse — typically a virus, an identifiable biological agent discovered by scientists.  In the current vogue, zombies are a consequence of something real and understandable.  But consider a movie like Dracula.  Count Dracula has crazy supernatural powers; he can fly, he casts no reflection in mirrors, he can turn into mist or into a bat.  This is crazy stuff well outside the boundaries of science — “supernatural.”  That scares the crap out of me because I can’t understand it.  In the absence of the solid foundation of science, imagination runs away on its own and degenerates into fear and superstition.

Of course, the real observation here is this: there are some damn imaginative people out there, making up all these stories about zombies and ghosts and vampires.  People with stunning imaginations.  And their audiences love these movies because they have robust and healthy imaginations that they love to set free, to wander far from the confines of everyday life.  This reveals a lovely conundrum: why is science literacy today widely regarded (by scientists, and a few economists) as one of the pre-eminent problems of our time?  If imagination is one of the most valuable tools in science, how can such vast segments of our highly imaginative society be scientifically illiterate?  Science is also a doorway to wonder, escapism and distant vistas crying to be explored.  But it doesn’t grip the world the way movies and novels do.  Why?  Perhaps it is because we have failed to imbue science with a deep connection to the core of the human psyche; perhaps it is because we’ve distilled science down into the five points of the scientific method and beakers full of polysyllabic organic compounds and mathematical formalism.  We hide behind the trappings of science, pretending to be dispassionate observers and all-knowing skeptics.  But at night, when no one is looking, we secretly listen to Bill Nye the Science Guy, and read Timothy Ferris, and watch reruns of Carl Sagan.  When we’re alone, we revisit the reasons we all became scientists in the first place: because science is full of adventures that dazzle us and tickle our imaginations into wondering what secrets Nature might hold.

If we want the world to be more science literate, we should revisit why each of us became scientists in the first place.  Scientists are born problem solvers — we should be able to imagine solutions to the problems of science literacy.  Many do, and have somehow touched that innermost part of our psychology that makes something important to beings such as we.  There are exceptional books like Craig Bohren’s “Clouds in a Glass of Beer,”  Richard Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” and Robert Banks’ “Towing Icebergs;” there are fantastic outreach programs, and citizen science programs like Protein Folding @Home and GalaxyZoo.  These are prominent and successful efforts, but they are not the norm and only engage the smallest fraction of our society.  As a whole, our community does not participate broadly enough in an activity which frankly we are the most qualified to do: using our imaginations to engage society in science.

Of course identifying a problem is one thing, but to imagine a solution one has to imagine what we want the world to be like on the far end.  This is the crux of the whole “science literacy” problem — we know we want more science literacy, but we don’t really have a uniformly agreed upon definition of what that means.  For the community of scientists as a whole, we recognize science literacy (or more likely, science illiteracy) when we see it.  For me, I propose the following personal goal for science literacy: I want non-scientists to enjoy indulging their curiosity about the world around them, and appreciate the fact that it is possible to figure things out.  I don’t care if people can actually do a calculation with the Universal Law of Gravitation — if you’re a dentist, I hope you can appreciate the way science works, but don’t care if you know the inner workings.  If you could compute the delta-v needed to make the transfer orbit from Earth to Mars, you’d be an astrophysicist not a dentist!

How do we encourage science literacy?  We imagine solutions!  Solutions that each of us as individual practitioners in science or education could implement, expand upon, and teach others to do.  Solutions that are simple, grass roots movements that are infectious by their simplicity and “fun factor”, which are casually introduced to the world around us and then spread like a vast plague, unleashing the science zombie in everyone.  There is only one global solution for science illiteracy: scientists must actively work outside their laboratories and classrooms to improve the understanding of science.  There is no silver bullet to save our society from the pit of ignorance.  The only solution is the sum of thousands of small solutions, built up by each one of us in our own sphere of influence — educating our neighbors, the post office employees, the night shift at Taco Bell, the city council, the president of the University.  For more than 30 years, we have bemoaned the state of science literacy in the United States.  If anything science illiteracy is getting worse as it becomes fashionable and (for some) politically correct to be science illiterate.  How can we possibly imagine that?

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2 responses to “Imagination, Zombies & the Trappings of Science

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