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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: 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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