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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 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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