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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 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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