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 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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