Physics and Imagination

“I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” -Albert Einstein

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

-Richard Feynman

There’s a deeper reason to valorize Einstein’s claim about imagination in physics. What I feel he is really saying is that imagination precedes knowledge, and indeed establishes the precondition for it. You might say that when the shape of imagination sufficiently fits the world, knowledge results.

The real point is that imagination in physics is what the paths to the future, to new knowledge, are built from. Actual knowledge – things we can accept as “true”, in the sense that they offer tried and tested ways of predicting how the world behaves – has been assembled into an edifice as wonderful and as robust as the Gothic cathedrals of stone, the medieval representations of the physical and spiritual universe. But at the point where knowledge runs out, only imagination can take us further. I think this is what Einstein was driving at.

Where Proof, Evidence and Imagination Intersect

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In mathematics, where proofs are everything, evidence is important too. But evidence is only as good as the model, and modeling can be dangerous business. So how much evidence is enough?

Those mathematicians know to be cautious when working with their models. Because they know that no matter how useful and interesting their model, no matter how compelling the evidence they collect, there might be something out there about elliptic curves that they didn’t quite imagine. And if you can’t imagine it, your model can’t capture it, and that means the evidence won’t reflect it.

Why the Future Is Always on Your Mind

“But it is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Behavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.”


What people in 1900 thought the year 2000 would look like

What do these images tell us about humans’ abilities to conceive of the future? Does this show the power of human imagination or its limitations?

Future Images

“Some of the portraits are fantastic — swashbucklers riding on giant seahorses, anyone? But others are actually surprisingly accurate visions of our current era, including farming machines, helicopters, and what looks like a precursor to the new robot vaccum, the iRobot Roomba vacuum:”

TED Talk: How Autism freed me to be myself

“‘People are so afraid of variety that they try to fit everything into a tiny little box with a specific label,’ says 16-year-old Rosie King, who is bold, brash and autistic. She wants to know: Why is everyone so worried about being normal? She sounds a clarion call for every kid, parent, teacher and person to celebrate uniqueness. It’s a soaring testament to the potential of human diversity.”