Thursday, March 10, 2011

Imagining Imagination

Sometime back, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, my 10 year old nephew is quite good at drawing. I glanced through his copybooks - he besides me with a mix of apprehension, pride and excitement. He eagerly showed me a water color with a hut, a coconut tree besides it (for some reason I observed that the coconut/palm/date is quite favourite among young artists), meadows and a setting sun. I playfully asked him - but where is the other sun ? Isn't there supposed to be two of them ? He was obviously baffled. I retired and a while later explained him that there are planets with multiple moons and multiple stars. It is not always common to be in a unistar planet.


What I took home from that event is that we are seriously limited at our imaginations by what we see around. We come to believe that it is the only way - which applies to physical objects and events as well as to psychological and intellectual barriers.

A natural way to fire the imagination skills is by letting the brain work in an unusual way. Like using the left hand for eating (or vice-versa if you are left-handed). Another is, to let the mind build up the scene alone and avoiding the direct sensory feeds. Like reading the star wars instead of watching it. When we watch it from Steven Spielberg, we form a preconceived notion of how an alien or a spaceship might look like and it gets real tough to break that stereotype. Interestingly, the limit of imagination poses a serious threat to the advancing of science, too. Here is an example from astronomy, which shows that an observation, which defied previous stereotypes led to a theory shake-up. On the other hand, there are famous predictions from theory and imagination, which were later confirmed by observations. Examples like this or Einstein's light-bending prediction are, however, rare. A daily occurrence of this imagination failure is when programmers fail to uncover a spec error because an application scenario was not imagined.

Here is a funny anecdote about how thinking out of the box helps. An indian scientist is invited to an american satellite launch mission. Being the mad scientist as typical, she (stereotype check - you thought the scientist is male :-) examines all the nuts and screws of the rocket closely and is real impressed. Just before the launch, it turned out that the rocket is failing to ignite. After repeated trials, the program executive turned to the indian scientist in desperation and asked if she had any clue. The scientist requested to have a huge crane fitted to the rocket. She went to the crane operating chair and tilted the rocket few times on both sides. And the rocket took off ! Everyone wondered how was it fixed. The scientist replied - "it is how my father always starts his scooter."

image credit : NASA/JPL's Planetquest/Caltech

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