TED Conversations

Swetha Chandrasekar

Chemical and Biomedical Engineering Student, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Is science just imagination in a straitjacket?

This week in my Bioelectricity class, we listened to an NPR interview with Frances Ashcroft. Ashcroft is a British scientist who made a discovery in 1984 that allows neonatal diabetes patients to take pills as insulin supplements instead of injections. In her interview, as she discussed her thoughts on the scientific process and developing her theory, she referenced a quote by Richard Feynman, is a renowned American theoretical physicist.
"Science is imagination in a straitjacket."
Many scientists would argue that science does not restrict imagination, but rather promotes it. How is it that a well renowned scientist and thinker like Feynman, could feel confined when seeking answers in science? Is science a vehicle for imagination or is it used to tie down imagination with facts? What experience could have caused him to have this opinion? Does science truly restrict the imagination as Feynman suggests, or is science a vehicle for imagination?

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    Feb 7 2013: I believe, based on my having read a lot by and about Feynman, that you are misinterpreting his statement. What he meant is that it is not like walking to a canvas and painting whatever you like. It is about marshaling your imagination to fashion a picture that meshes with what is observed empirically. He found this far more intriguing (though he also painted) and not at all stifling!

    I could refer you to his biography by James Gleick or any of his autobiographical writing.
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      Feb 7 2013: Hi Fritzie,

      I think it's interesting to consider the dynamic relationship between the free-flow imagination in scientific theory and the generation of undeniable evidence to get everyone else to believe the fantasy of a scientist. From one end, you could say that theory gives rise to experiments which generate scientific data, but at the same time that scientific data could contradict your original fantasy and provide inspiration for a new one. It's kind of like a chicken-and-egg scenario.

      If you could, please post more information about Gleick's autobiographical writing you were talking about. Thanks!
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        Feb 7 2013: Do you mean a link to the Gleick biography or to Feynman's autobiographical stuff?

        The Gleick book is called Genius.

        Two of the autobiographical ones are:

        Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman
        What Do You Care What Other People Think
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    Feb 11 2013: In his book titled The Art of Scientific Investigation, W. I. B. Beveridge writes:

    "While imagination is the source of inspiration in seeking new knowledge, it can also be dangerous if not subjected to discipline; a fertile imagination needs to be balanced by criticism and judgment. This is, of course, quite different from saying it should be repressed or crushed. The imagination merely enables us to wander into the darkness of the unknown where... we may glimpse something that seems of interest... Imagination is at once the source of all hope and inspiration but also of frustration. To forget this is to court despair."

    I think the straitjacket in Feynman's quote may actually be the most ideal garment with which to clothe our imaginations. If we let our imaginations run wild, we will surely come up with interesting ideas, but they may not be most effective.

    We have seen that science, as a global endeavor to unlock the worlds secrets, is actually quite locked down. Grants are not easy to come by and home-brew labs are only very recently gaining popularity (ie. Genspace.org). Since the time of the enlightenment, it was academic societies, and journals that influenced which scientific advancements and ideas would be popularized and accepted. If your imagination was ahead of its time, then it most likely wouldn't have made it to the status of "Science."

    I think many would agree that imagination is the precursor to science and that with the necessary refining, testing and polishing, imagination can become science.
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    Feb 10 2013: G’day Swetha

    Imagination in a strait jacket definitely a yes on that one, if scientists never imagined what if’s science wouldn’t have evolved from philosophy & mysticism. Has science conducted itself freely within the imagination? Definitely not as it’s restricted by fundamental logical deductive analysis in other words dogmas.

    Imagination is a huge primary conductive source to a scientist as it allows the scientist to wonder which usually leads to theorising which can lead to a proven deduction with the source of the initial analysis.

    This is a good one Swetha!!

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    Feb 8 2013: Imagination is a powerful force that sometimes requires restraint in order to be used productively. I think that when viewed through the lens of imagination, science does indeed have the dual roles of utility and tyranny. It seems to me that the metaphor is funny and apt -- good science does involve a great deal of imagination contained within it, but the current system can be primitive and overbearing, and needs a lot of work.
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    Feb 11 2013: The underlying purpose of science is to create knowledge. How can creating something not be imaginative?

    There are methods and rules for scientists to follow so we can confirm the knowledge but that should not restrict imagination.
  • Feb 11 2013: I think that what he was trying to say is (to paraphrase):

    'Science lets you do some imagination, but it makes you test your work and prove it'

    I think that this is a very ASTUTE observation that is right on the money. Science allows you to be imaginative, if it was not imaginative there would rarely be new discoveries! But it also makes you prove what you imagine.

    For example you could imagining a cure for a disease. You could come up with many options. Everything from microbiology, to diet change to seeing if weightlessness cured the disease, or treating it with anything, and any ingredients.. There are millions of cures and you could be as creative as you would want to be. You would only be bound by your imagination! But you also must prove that your idea, invention, approach or anything else actually WORKS. That is the beauty of science. It is provable by other people.

    I love science and I also love innovation. When you combine the two amazing things can happen. Thank you for sharing this quote and posting it. Asking the question in the way you did made me grow mentally and enhance my perspective.
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    Feb 8 2013: Hi Swetha,

    I appreciate you introducing this Feynman quote in your ideas. I think it is a very powerful statement that illustrates the depth and beauty of science.

    Science definitely requires creativity in order to flourish. However, imagination needs to be confined to the scope of the realty we perceive to be useful. I think it is interesting to ponder whether this type of imagination is completely limitless or is simply within the bounds of our understanding. This also raises the question of whether or not we are actually capable of true imagination, as this demands withdrawing from our realm of being.

    I find the application of the abstract world into concreteness a defining factor of science. Therefore, science is faced with the tough task of implementing theoretical ideas to produce practical solutions. With this, science has this magical effect of connecting two seemingly independent worlds.
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    Feb 8 2013: Hey Swetha!

    I really love this quote (as well as most Feynman quotes. Seriously, the man was a genius in so many ways.). I think it definitely holds true, but I think there's two ways to approach this quote: One is to think of imagination as a pure entity, and then confine it in a straightjacket. The other is to imagine a person in a straightjacket, and give them the power of imagination. I think science is definitely best looked at as the latter. Too often, people find science boring and regimented, but Feynman was saying that it's not like that at all- it's a creative pursuit, it's just that creativity has to follow certain laws of physics. Science is working within those laws of physics, and creating a world of infinite imagination in that confined space.

    And anyway, pure unleashed imagination is chaotic and unproductive: merely sitting and staring into space with imagination rarely, if ever, produces great ideas. Without direction you could spent your time imagining, for example, pink elephants breakdancing in glittery tutus; the scope is too broad. (That isn't to say that pure imagination is pointless, just that it's not as productive.) Most writing workshops give their participants prompts, or genres, to work within. So too, the universe gives us laws of physics to work within, and we (scientists) get to study and explore within those bounds!
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      Feb 8 2013: Hindi,
      I really liked your way of interpreting this quote, a person in a straightjack with the power of imagination, perhaps because it reflects how I like to think about science. Science allows us to imagine incredible things while approaching the idea with logic and intelligence. It provides us with a method, knowledge, and background, before setting us free to think up whatever we wish. Like you said, science gives us direction. But even with the laws of physics we are forced to adhere to, the possibilities will always be endless. In fact, often our imaginations fall short of reality. The more I learn, the more I feel that there are certain phenomena out there that are too incredible for us to think up. Science challenges us to understand its nature, to work with it, and learn from it. It is definitely a vehicle for imagination.
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    J D

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    Feb 8 2013: It's kind of hard for me to distinguish science from imagination. Both of them develop by asking "what if this were true?" And also, "what if everyone's wrong?" We start from there and branch off in many directions. The straitjacket is what we've accepted as true after many repeatable observations of the past. In some ways, these accepted theories restrict our imagination, but they also work as a springboard for our thoughts by giving us extra parameters to consider, and also extra things to question while we're imagining. Unfortunately as we get older, a lot of people begin to value imagination less and less, and prefer immediate practicality. The consequence is that our developed minds are less able to picture or value things that we haven't observed with our senses or can't find a use for. Children find it easier than adults to imagine the 4th spatial dimension. American space exploration has lost its high priority as well as its funding.
    I also can't help but tie all this to personality theory models such as the Myers Briggs model (Intuition versus Sensing http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/sensing-or-intuition.asp ), and The Big Five model ("openness to experience" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Openness_to_experience ). Intuitive thinking and openness to experience (i.e. imagination) are required for motivation in advancing science, while sensing thinking (i.e. the straitjacket) is required to bring consistency or unity to the many different ideas.
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    Feb 8 2013: Swetha,

    You raise a very interesting question. First and foremost, I think it's very important to fully understand what sort of imagination Feynman was referring to. Imagination in this regard definitely doesn't have anything to do with unicorns and elves. Perhaps what Feynman meant to say was that in our generation, we are constrained by what we already know. I don't necessarily agree with that, because there is always something left undiscovered. In her interview, Ashcroft makes it seem like everything has already been discovered and all that is left now is to prove scientific theories and focus on what was provided for us by previous generations and work with what we were given. In her eyes, you can't simply make up a story out of thin air and start doing scientific research.

    I like to be optimistic and believe that there are still hundreds of things that we still haven't discovered on our magnificent planet. Hopefully some day soon you'll be able to escape from this so called straitjacket as Houdini did and focus on your creativity along with your affinity for science.
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    Feb 8 2013: Feynman may have actually said, "The game I play is this, its imagination in a tight straightjacket, which is this; that it has to agree with the known laws of physics." He said this in response to a question about designing an anti- gravity machine.
    min 1:38

    This changes the question posed here.
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      Feb 8 2013: Thanks for the link. I find Richard to be an interesting and similar minded individual. I have seen some of his interviews but not this one.
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      Feb 10 2013: Theodore

      I think you're right. Over this conversation and that video I think the question has changed from, "Is science imagination in a straitjacket?" to "How can we preserve the imagination behind science and not feel constricted?" How do we allow ourselves to dream and explore without feeling like a question cannot be answered. The worst idea would be to say "We can't build an anti-gravity machine because physics says no." Instead, we should be saying, "Anti-gravity machine? Challenge accepted! Let's see how we can reform our definition of gravity and work towards making something novel!" Imagination is a precursor for science!
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        Feb 10 2013: The problem as I see it is that our scientific understanding of the universe is far ahead of how we apply the science. At the same time our abilities to understand the implications science has on our planet is limited.
        The uses of fossil fuels, nuclear reactors, genetic modification, all have a downside.
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        Feb 10 2013: a better question might be: what other interpretations facts make possible? we often neglect alternative explanations, because we got used to the old ones. it took a decade or two and a rare genius for the special theory of relativity to show up, despite all the pieces were known, just nobody had put them together. many times the new knowledge is right in front of us, but our old conclusions hold us back.
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    Feb 8 2013: Swetha, nothing great has ever been accomplished without being creative. You are obviously a bright young lady and in your life you will get to hear a lot of opinions. Some you will agree with, some you will not and that will not just be in your educational life. So, as in many things in life take them in evaluate them and use them as you choose. Just because some one is intellectual does not mean they are smart!
  • Feb 7 2013: Scientists are explorers of complex landscapes. On these landscapes, it is easy to find novelty, and it is even easier to get lost. The scientific method allows us to strike the right balance. The scientific method, as described by Popper, is the oscillation between conjectures and refutations. To use your terminology, the imagination is the conjectures, and the data are the restrictions placed on the conjectures.

    Feynman's point is that artists need no be restricted by the data. Good art is only restricted by its ability to tell us truths. By contrast, in the course of doing their jobs, scientists constantly run up against refutations to their beautiful, imaginative ideas. This makes science difficult, but it also makes science uniquely qualified to describe the natural world in a way that leads us down unexpected avenues, nooks, and crannies within the fractal landscape (nature) we explore.

    Most of the working scientists in the world spend most of their time restricting their imaginations with experiments, calculations, critical thought, and statistics. In fact, they often do this too much--at the expense of the imagination part. On the other hand, it is bloody difficult to dance across the fractal and not get lost. That is why so few scientists do both conjectures and refutations well. As an example of one who did, you need to look no further than Feynman.
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    Feb 12 2013: I do agree with the fact that science places restrictions on imagination, however I would not go as far as to call it a straight jacket. Unfortunately, it is true that the human mind can fantasize about many things that are just not physically possible in this world. Science is, therefore, a damper on our imagination; however, I believe that imagination can overcome this obstacle. Imagination and science can be manipulated to work in harmony with each other, rather than against each other, as the term "straight jacket on imagination" implies.
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      Feb 12 2013: George,

      I agree with your take on science and the restriction that it places on imagination. Imagination is near limitless, as you have said. However I do believe that science is limited to the concrete evidence that is used to prove an idea or theory to be scientifically sound. In my mind, this is the straitjacket that science wears. Simply put, imagination can be anything and everything, while science uses imagination to a certain degree and real life proof to show its validity. Think about the past scientists who have stumbled upon new ideas. These ideas were initially merely the work of their imaginations.
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    Feb 12 2013: Hi Swetha,

    Thank you for your post! I vote that science is most definitely a vehicle for imagination.
    When Ashcroft stated that science is imagination in a straitjacket, she may have meant that she was limited by any number of things - the equipment she was using, the lack of support financially or from other researchers, the access to samples to test, etc. Feynman is included in this sense of restriction - a physicist might feel limited simply by the inability to 'see' in the fifth or sixth dimension. My point is that science does not limit imagination, it's outside factors, generally limited resources, which create the straitjacket. Part of the solution to this is social outreach, garnering support for researchers through public education. Look at publications like http://www.genengnews.com/ or encourage people to attend events such as http://makerfaire.com/. We should ask how we can make science more popular and accessible so that people may never think that it stunts imagination.
  • Feb 12 2013: I spent some time doing research in a microbiology lab as an undergrad. At one point, I was working with a postdoc who was submitting her first grant proposal. My postdoc was obviously both very nervous; this was her first grant proposal on a project that she designed herself. Unfortunately, she did not end up getting the grant. However, she wasn't that surprised. When I asked why, she simply responded that her ideas were too "radical". That there wasn't enough supplementary data collected by other scientists that can verify that her project would work, or even be worthwhile.

    Thats the regrettable, under-reported aspect of research. When projects are this expensive, grant committees have the power to essentially decide what gets done within their entire field. On one hand, this is understandable; why spend $50,000 looking into a gene that may have nothing to do at all with cancer or its cure. But on the same token, that gene may very well be the key to curing ALL cancers. We don't know. And unfortunately, a lot of "safe" projects with limited potential get grant money whereas the risky, but high reward projects get nothing.

    In my lab, researchers would have one main project that was approved for grant money. However, the big "grant" supported projects weren't really anything more than testing a hypothesis that you KNOW was right (you wouldn't have gotten the grant if there was a hint of doubt). But the side projects was were the real science was really done. This is where we asked "what happens when we do this". This is where the "huh that's funny" occurs. All of this is done with leftover grant money not used for the main project. Nothing big and risky (like isolating/manipulation genes) can really be done as a side project. And unfortunately, something big is what we may need.
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    Feb 9 2013: I think Feynmen's idea is largely true in the sense that science has its limits set by the laws of physics. There are areas of science that we have little understanding of, such as how the human brain works, etc. In this case, I think imagination is what helps scientists learn more about the unknown and understand things better, despite the negative connotation that the word "straighjacket" has. I think science is bounded by the reality, but imagination and creativity lead to scientific discovery especially in the areas that we have very little understanding of.
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      Feb 10 2013: Kyung,

      I agree with your point. I think the quote is double-edged. From one end, as many have commented, scientific theory serves as a reality check on imaginitive ideas and gives a framework in which to explore and create. From the other end--and this is what you brought to my attention--I think that the more unknown scieces don't offer that framework and a lot of it is just shooting in the dark. So indeed "imagination and creativity lead to scientific discovery especially in the areas that we have very little understanding of."

      I think this is where the negative connotation of "straightjacket" comes in to play. Swetha asked " What experience could have caused him [Feynman] to have this opinion?" Perhaps he and many other scietists have frusterating experiences, particularly in new frontiers of science, in which their idea or theory is proven empirically false. Maybe it's in times like those when Feynman felt like he was tied down to the laws of nature like a straightjacket and he couldn't break free from them as much as his imagination and theories tried. It can also be that this enemy turns into a friend once success is achieved, because it provides the guidance and framework that has come up throughout this TED conversation.
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      Feb 10 2013: I think, when we look at history and see the great works done by those who lived and ruled under the established religious order, we can say that imagination works under any system of discovering the truth but science does it better.

      If you walk a path that is narrowed by the rules of science, you will, eventually, stumble onto a discovery, wither you have imagination or not. Computers lack imagination but, if properly programmed, can take the rules of science and make new discoveries.

      I'm no longer sure just what imagination really is and if we need it or not.
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    Feb 9 2013: Imagination is not a piece of science. Science is a piece of imagination. Any other thought of this relationship is the straight jacket Feynman suggests.

    Okay, everybody take a five minute break, go into the hall and remove your straight jackets, please. just teasing
  • Feb 8 2013: The straitjacket is "Profitability" and "Marketability".
  • Feb 8 2013: I like how he put it. "Science is imagination in a straight jacket," because it so truly is. It starts in schools, we are taught to memorize facts and not to think independently. Look at any great inventor, he is usually up against colleagues and others who say it cannot be done or that it's silly. Progress is what carries the motivation to get something done, and everyone defines it differently. Modern science has limited our 'way' of thinking and it's only until we try to define life's possibilities ourselves that we ever really achieve anything. Science tries too hard to control the how and imagination allows truth to work itself out naturally.
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    Feb 8 2013: Richard has some interesting view points on science and its study and applications. Great interviews to watch and many people may take away more philosophical view points than pure science.

    2 ideas I love. Science does not take away from beauty. We can understand all about molecules, cells, botany etc and that beautiful rose is that much more beautiful because of the understanding.

    The other idea... we can know the name of a bird, who discovered it, its latin name, its species etc and still know nothing about the bird.

    Great topic. You have given me another Feynman lecture to listen to. Thank you
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      Feb 8 2013: Thank you so much for your input. I completely agree with both of your ideas! I am making it a point to watch more Feynman lectures after hearing the TED community's input. I hope to pick up on his philosophies. So much to learn from!
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    Feb 8 2013: Feynman is talking about the struggle between imagination and empirical thinking and practice. In other words, there will always be tensions between "invention" and science, although both are interdependent.
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    Feb 8 2013: This was on "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross.
    This is the transcript of that interview:

    This was Ashcroft's quote:
    "As the American physicist Richard Feynman famously said, 'science is imagination in a straitjacket'. But the best scientists are those whose curiosity, insight, and skills are tempered by doubt. Doubt is at the heart of all we do."
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      Feb 8 2013: Theodore

      Thank you for posting this! I forgot to do so in my initial post. I hope you enjoyed the interview.
  • Feb 14 2013: I agree with Richard Feynman, who says "Science is imagination in a straitjacket."

    If and only if for one reason, I could imagine a place and a time where drugs are not engineered as to "Manage" a disease but rather cure it. Science has not delivered.

    Some homework for you :)... look up the last time any disease was cured.

    You'll be surprised at the answer and how science has been in a straightjacket not of imagination but of business and ongoing profitability.

    Be careful about using this as any argument in any class, its not in general what scientists want to hear.
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    Feb 14 2013: Egg or Chicken puzzle? As human beings we imagine things and before the imagined can exist physically, we call this imagination. When the very thing is discovered at it appropriate time we call it science. For instance, before electricity was discovered by humans, people imagined what it would be to have such energy so in this case imagination can be said to have come first before science. On the other hand, imagination did not create science. Nature laws, energies such as electricity has always been there awaiting discovery. Simply put, science is always there, imagination is always there. We only imagine what we are prepared to handle at particular periods in our lives. Science does not restrict imagination and imagination does not create science.....
  • Feb 13 2013: The commercialization of science is a very very tight jacket but pure sciences shouldn't be. Even thought science encourage imagination, there is always a commercial aspect that sponsors are not going to overlook!

    On the other hand, based on resent studies that our minds interact with our environment and we can impact the physical world at a quantum level with our minds, we might actually find that imagination is the real limit. Facts would be just our imagination collapsing in what would like to experience. I know, sounds crazy but we might have to archive classic mechanic at some point in the future. Now, how is that for imagination? :-)
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    Feb 13 2013: Is science just imagination in a straitjacket?
    No, its much more than that, but at some stage it comes back to evidence and what is physically possible with current technology.
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    Feb 12 2013: Science covers so many topics I couldn't imagine not calling it a vehicle for imagination. Everything around us rotates around cycles of science, from our heart beating to all the galaxies in the universe moving away from one point in space. Imagination really is a science! Yes, science does say that humans can fly, sure, but it can explain to you why a bird flies or an airplane can carry thousands of pounds and still stay in a substance light enough to float. Science is the foundation for imagination.
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    Feb 11 2013: I think the statement suggests that science is constricted by the laws that govern it, the laws of physics, etc.

    So while it is our imaginations that allows us to pursue the stuff of StartTrek or ask questions of our beginnings, it is the straight jacketed nature of science, the hard limits of the known rules that govern our universe which eventually satiates or douse that imagination.

    Imagine jumping out of a plane and flying, soaring through the skies like superman. Gravity will eventually have something to say about that dream. Or science may use the rules that restricts your dream to develop some technology to allow the fruition of that dream. In a way working within these constrictions (known rules) has been and is the key to that straight jacket and the freeing our imaginations.

    After all, man always thought that he could fly, but it was science that allowed him to.
    I believe it is our imaginations that are straight jacketed, limited, and science is the gateway to our dreams.