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Art & Science: Common imagination

I’m planning to reboot this blog with a new focus on imagination as a common activity central to both art and science.

Too often people think of science as a machine. Pour in some hypotheses, turn the data crank, and out pop some well-packaged facts. Doing science does not actually feel like being a machine, however. Hypotheses are risky — they require scientists to take a stand, to make a bet about how they think the world is. Also, not every hypothesis is equally interesting. It takes creativity to figure out which questions are worth asking and what would count as a good answer. Similarly, getting data isn’t simply a matter of effort, like having the strength to push a boulder up a hill. It can require physical dexterity and art in the lab, such as injecting a solution into a test tube in just the right way so it settles on the bottom without mixing with the surrounding liquid. It also requires coordinating the things we know how to do with the questions we want to answer, sometimes creating entirely new techniques so we can get from point A to point B in our argument. Scientists are embodied beings, who make use of physical intuitions and skills to do their work and who regularly spend time having crazy thoughts and imagining previously impossible things.

Sadly, people who know what it feels like to do science have a lot of trouble communicating these non-mechanical aspects. It’s hard to describe and to understand without actually becoming a scientist. Part of the problem, I suggest, is that we need to focus on science in the process of discovery rather than after the fact. We also need to focus on those aspects of science that call on the experiences we all share. Most of us will never solve a differential equation, but everyone likes looking at pretty pictures. We may never genetically engineer a cell, but we can all appreciate the metaphors that scientists use to understand how cells work. (For instance, the cell as a computer, the cell as an individual in a society, cancer cells as defectors from their host organism.) We may never win a grant from the National Science Foundation, but we can all pick apart the stories that scientists use to make sense of their lives and careers in order to understand what matters to them and why.

Visualization, metaphor, and story-telling are all products of imagination. We all know how to imagine, but some of us develop it in particular directions in exciting new ways. The hope for this blog is to bring some of the wonder and feeling of science in practice to light through talking about imagination in science. Here’s to looking at and talking about the life of science in a more accessible and meaningful way.

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