Science: From Imagination to Reality

David McAlpine explores how Science is more imagination and ambition than simply numbers and elements.

Albert Einstein, famous thought-experimenter

There are two types of people; those who happily watch television and enjoy it for what it is and those who constantly point out the inaccuracies of this and that. I should probably disclose that I belong in the latter group; no detail is spared from my assault on a filmmaker’s follies.

The physics of science fiction movies is one such example that is the subject of heated debates on internet forums. This introduces a third group into the mix; those who are inspired by such farfetched concepts and seek to make them reality. On the novelty end of the spectrum, the hover board featured in the 1980’s film, ‘Back to the Future’, is still influencing popular culture three decades later. On an insanely more complicated level, time travel has captured the collective imagination of humanity for generations, despite arguably being the most farfetched science fiction concept. Yet, on the other hand, the scientific theory of Special Relativity, devised by Albert Einstein, predicts that it could be possible to travel forward in time. In response to this, my Physics teacher has even remarked, “My time machine design would work if I had the power of three nuclear power stations.” Farfetched, indeed.

If science fiction inspires new thinking and pre-empts changes to the way we live, where is the distinction between fact and fiction? The answer is the essence of how the study of Science works.

At its core, Science is an imaginative and ambitious activity that dreams of the next frontier, the next transition of an idea into a reality. A successful scientist must not only have the academic ability to understand how the body fights disease or how a supernova occurs but also have the imagination to pursue new theories. Hypothesising in essence is imagining a scenario, from a slight tweak of an established theory to an entirely new, potentially revolutionary concept. If individuals such as Einstein, Galileo and Newton had not employed their imagination when pondering how the Universe functions, our understanding would have hardly progressed. Hence, it is no coincidence that when a scientist is explaining a concept, it often begins with “If you can imagine…”

Testing this idea is also a creative endeavour; to design an experiment that accurately determines if an idea is realistic, is a challenge of sometimes epic proportions, whether this be determining if a particular drug is actually more effective than another or if the Higgs Boson particle exists. Spoiler alert; it does. Innovation in experimental equipment has often been stimulated by creative and ‘outside the square’ thought. Australian chemist Alan Walsh, for instance, was struck by a flash of inspiration whilst pottering around in his garden on a Sunday, leading to the development of a technology called AAS, now one of the most widely utilised instrumental analysis techniques in Science worldwide. This part of Science is just as creative as it is about logic and convention.

Analysing the data is when the logic, mathematics and statistics really come into their own; however, the interpretation in order to support or disprove the hypothesis involves thinking outside the square and being prepared to challenge longstanding beliefs. As Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori argued, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Of course, the process does not end here. A scientist repeats experiments, changes variables and devises new methods of modelling data, all of which involve creative thought and abstract thinking.

Einstein, famous for his thought-experiments, pondered that “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” In considering this, one realises that imagination is the intersection between art and science. It is no wonder that many notable scientists are also artistically inclined. One of the most brilliant creative beings ever to exist, Leonardo da Vinci, is recognised more for his artwork but he was a brilliant scientist and engineer, several hundred years ahead of others in his designs. More contemporary figures also come to mind, such as American regenerative medicine researcher and scientific leader Professor Nadia Rosenthal, who is also an accomplished artist. There are other parallels between Science and Art. Just as novelists face writer’s block or publish a book which is a dismal failure commercially, failure is a part of Science as much as discovery and success.  The well-known adage of the development of the light bulb by Thomas Edison exemplifies this. He famously asserted, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

After thinking of how Science works, we now return to the issue of science fiction becoming reality. If these writers appear to be ‘out of this world’, totally unrealistic in their dreams of the future, then how different are the scientists endeavouring to discover an elusive particle that lives for a tiny fraction of a second? Their aspirations of demonstrating that this particle exists in reality are apparently as wacky as those ideas developed by writers. Who would believe that space is curvy, that there are four dimensions, that light is a particle and a wave at the same time? All of these examples of apparent fiction being tested and supported as fact show that the difference between fact and fiction is the scientific method, the ambitious verification of an idea into reality.

Furthermore, perhaps the only difference is that novelists possess artistic license in order to ignore reality, whereas scientists must account for it? In the realistic world of Science, the elephant in the room cannot be ignored, rather metaphorically examined and its blood tested, its presence investigated and debated. After all, if Science was not forward thinking and challenging, we would still believe that the world is flat or that the sun orbits around us!

Both science and science fiction are part of the human condition, our desire to reach out into the unknown; a challenging journey. Whilst most literature is a reflection and critique of society past and present, science fiction provides inspiration for the future and cautions against immoral change. Science without dreaming is not science; it is just a recitation of old information. It is an evolving, fluid and dynamic adventure narrative, as theories are devised, supported, modified and eventually replaced with a new model or school of thought.

Sure, we may not have those hover boards from ‘Back to the Future’ yet, but be reassured that an ambitious and creative scientist somewhere is developing one. Like the lightbulb, it may just take 10,000 prototypes to be a success.