Scientists have a particular kind of limitation that’s used when applying imagination.
“The whole question of imagination in science is often misunderstood by people in other disciplines. They try to test our imagination in the following way. They say, “Here is a picture of some people in a situation. What do you imagine will happen next”. When we say, “I can’t imagine,” they may think we have a weak imagination. They overlook the fact that whatever we are allowed to imagine in science must be consistent with everything else we know; that the electric fields and the waves we talk about are not just some happy thoughts which we are free to make as we wish, but ideas which must be consistent with all the laws of physics we know.
“We can’t allow ourselves to seriously imagine things which are obviously in contradiction to the known laws of nature. And so our kind of imagination is quite a difficult game. One has to have the imagination to think of something that has never been seen before, never been heard of before. At the same time the thoughts are restricted in a straitjacket, so to speak, limited by the conditions that come from our knowledge of the way nature really is
The problem of creating something which is new, but which is consistent with everything which has been seen before, is one of extreme difficulty.”
The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol. II, 1964, p. 20-10. (thanks to Michael A. Gottlieb from www.feynmanlectures.info for the original citation)
Sometimes, however, the unconscious, as in sleep, can assist in this imaginative endeavor:
Elias Howe was one of many people who worked independently to invent a sewing machine. Exhausted, after working intensely on the invention, he fell asleep and had the following dream:
He dreamed that the natives, in a jungle, threw him into a large stew-pot. He was trying frantically to get out while the natives poked at him with their spears.
Later the next day, he recalled his dream, and with a start realized that the spears poking at him in the dream had holes at the point. This unconscious realization shook up his operating paradigm, which framed a needle as a hand-held instrument with the hole at the top. Through reflecting on his dream, he realized this needed to be reversed in the invention, the “sewing machine.”
Another story I’ve heard involves James Watson, one of two men who won the Nobel Prize for conceiving of the DNA double helix. According to the tale, Watson also fell asleep, this time napping, after being stymied about this problem, and dreamed of two snakes intertwining in an ascending helix, biting their tales. He now had the visual design.
Good ideas, like the one my friend, Robert Beartsch has been working on, require creative imagination combined with scientific know-how. Watch this video and imagine a rail system that’s cheap, sleek, and solar powered:
With a little more imagination, we can remove the roadways and autos altogether, and envision bike paths instead.
When scientists dream, they also need the general public to dream along with them. We need to be able to imagine putting ourselves in the dream. These Skytran allow no more than one or two passengers, which enables them to float as they do. Can you imagine no more traffic jams? No more smog?