What’s life without the world within us, a perpetually unfolding space that is the kaleidoscope to our reality? Children, being so free from the constraints of adulthood, roam in and out of this space without care, bringing traces from one world to another. These are the years of soft imaginings; of observing the world like a sponge which takes in all that it can take, without the pretense of an intellectual or the fear of being wrong.
At the same time, we are taught that these meanderings are nothing but child-like tendencies to understand the world. As we step into adulthood, we are transforming our minds to be computation tools to synthesize information, leaving the imaginations behind and forgetting that these kinds of meanderings, too, still remain to be the most fertile space to understand the world.
Scientists too are vivid imaginators. From Carl Sagan to Albert Einstein, the greatest scientists agree on a crucial thing – the role of imaginations to create space for theories and calculations. Carl Sagan lamented the ways parents dismissed children’s quirky questions, while Einstein had understood for a long time that “creativity is intelligence at play.” So what’s a better way to learn about this fluid spectrum of creativity and intelligence than to peek into some of the greatest scientists’ early beginnings; their first steps of fascination towards the worlds of invisible matters.
Richard Feynman, the quantum physicist and nuclear scientist from the 1940s, recalled how his Dad will put a T-Rex by the window.
‘This thing is twenty-five feet high and the head is six feet across,’ you see, and so he’d stop all this and say, ‘let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by.’
Everything we’d read would be translated as best we could into some reality and so I learned to do that
His imagination triggered the way he sees his reality. And all of the sudden, Feynman saw so much more beyond what’s visible. Kids have this natural aptitude to string different concepts together, creating a dreamscape that is both nourishing to the soul and stretching to the mind – an exercise of breaking through conventions that are actually critical in adulthood. And yet, and yet, we have stopped imagining T-Rex by the window, which comes to visit only to have some conversations.
Feynman passed on this habit to his children, where he introduced rugs as “woods with big log tall blue things like trees but without leaves and only one stalk” or dog’s nose as “moist cave where the wind kept going in and out, coming in cool and went out warm,“ explaining things without names, just concepts that excite the imagination to see through what’s obvious.
Einstein’s fascination with the invisible forces began when his father, who owned an electrical engineering firm, gave him a compass when Einstein was around 7 years old. The needle that keeps pointing at North, as if directed by invisible hands, struck him with wonder and he learned that there are invisible forces that govern the visible things.
Ever since then, Einstein studied math and the sciences religiously, often times on his own. His uncle, who was also an engineer, will give him encouragements to pursue his scientific studies, even though his teachers assumed him as retarded for not answering questions quickly. And as the son of an engineer, the whole engineering and math world is not exactly alien to him. Perhaps even, kept him inspired. For all his life Einstein to me embodies a person who artistic sense and scientific labor coexist harmoniously. And he did it all with full on discipline and resilience to the works.
Sagan’s ambitious message time capsule that was sent into the deep space, The Golden Record, was foreshadowed by a five-year-old Sagan’s amazement at a 1939 Time Capsule in World Fair, New York. In that Time Capsule were common possessions, ranging from dolls, Mickey Mouse, toothpaste, to newsreel, essays in microfilms, books, and many more, sealed in a chamber to opened in 6939. The fact that we did put a Time Capsule marked a hopeful look into the future, where the longevity of human career on Earth allows us to look back and reconnect with fragments of the past that were intentionally preserved. There’s a confidence in humanity in this act. And there’s also a confidence in the story of the Golden Record, not only on future humans who will rediscover this piece of disk but on humanity itself as it mirrors back to us.
Sagan’s love affair with Nature is infectious. His name becomes an emblem for the spiritual intrigue of Nature, and we are infatuated. In the way Sagan approached the sciences, there is something quite child-like about it. Take for example: when he asked NASA to turn Voyager’s 1 camera around to take a photo of the Earth when Voyager was just left the solar system. NASA refused, saying the photo will be insignificant. Yet the photo has been distributed and reused millions of times every since—that photo of our pale blue earth suspended in the sunbeams—since it captured millions of feelings within us. Even The Golden Record, is a kind of ‘play’ too—a way of questioning and exploring our history, in an attempt to explain ourselves to our possible neighbors.