Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Work of the Imagination

The Work of the Imagination
A Crisis of Imagination: 
We Must Imagine the Future to Survive

This is part of a series of blogs about creativity, imagination, 
and the need to shape our future. See these blogs:
Living With Rejection: Living the Creative Life
How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

What is now proved was once only imagined.
William Blake
  Yet even Blake could not have imagined the impact human technology would have on the Earth as a whole.

No society has ever yet been able to handle the temptations of technology...
We have to learn to cherish this Earth and cherish it as something that's fragile, that's only one, it's all we have. We have to use our scientific knowledge to correct the dangers that have come from science and technology.
Margaret Mead
We are all interested in the future, 
for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.
Plan 9 From Outer Space (Directed by Ed Wood) :)

The future of humankind is now directly tied to our imagination. Whether we know it or not, we have taken on the task of managing the Earth itself. With the effect that technology has had and will have on the environment, we must learn to imagine a world that we are now in charge of.

“Imagination is the highest form of research.” 
"I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
 "Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere."
Albert Einstein

While we have abundant data from satellites, photographic imaging, temperature readings, the rate of glacier melting, etc., this is only the beginning. This is merely data. This data must be combined in sophisticated ways to create knowledge. And then with a foundation of knowledge we must begin to imagine what our world will look like in 50 years or 100 or when our great-grandchildren are alive. For the first time in our history we must look at ourselves and monitor our effect on the world's climate. 

The task is huge. it requires people who can think across a number of disciplines -- which takes many years of study, many more than it takes to get a standard advanced degree in only one subject. Then it requires that people think 'outside the box' to find a way that we can live with and mitigate the impact of human technology on the Earth.
The old bond between humans and nature has been permanently altered by technology. The task of the 21st century artist and inventor is to forge a new relationship between humans and the world, since our fate is inseparable from that of the Earth.
Rick Doble (1999)

This is a tall order. But a key is the ability to imagine what the future could be. As I wrote in my blog The History of the Future , the future must first be imagined before actual working inventions, concepts and formulas can be created. I call this initial thinking 'The Work of the Imagination'. 

(Top) 1902: Still from the Méliès Sci-Fi film: A Trip to the Moon. The command module that held the astronauts was inserted into a super-gun to send it to the moon. 
(Bottom) 1964: A NASA drawing of the command module that would take astronauts to the moon.  (NASA)
The similarity in the shape between the module in the 1902 film fantasy and the actual NASA design is remarkable.
1972: The Apollo 17 actual command module floating above the moon in 1972. Notice the similarity in shape and even the similarity in construction with the Sci-Fi module (above) in the Méliès 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon.


The Imagination Connection Between:
Jules Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon (1865)
and the Apollo landing on the Moon in 1969
Book cover of an English translation of Verne's novel of 1865.

"During their return journey from the moon, the crew of Apollo 11 made reference to Jules Verne's book during a TV broadcast on July 23, 1969. The mission's commander, astronaut Neil Armstrong, said, 'A hundred years ago, Jules Verne wrote a book about a voyage to the Moon. His spaceship, Columbia [sic], took off from Florida and landed in the Pacific Ocean after completing a trip to the Moon. It seems appropriate to us to share with you some of the reflections of the crew as the modern-day Columbia completes its rendezvous with the planet Earth and the same Pacific Ocean tomorrow.' " 

NOTE: In Jules Verne's novel the command module was shot into space by Americans from a location in Florida just as the Apollo 11 mission had done. In the novel the method for firing the command module into space was with a Columbiad super-gun.

Now many of the things imagined will not be built or will not work, but from a world community of imaginary technologies and outcomes, the necessary ideas and technologies could emerge.

I find that few men of imagination are not worth my attention. 
Their ideas may be wrong, even foolish, but their methods often repay a close study.
Stephen Jay Gould

Late Breaking News!

NOW! On October 5, 2016 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three nanotechnology scientists who have made great advances in designing microscopic machines known as molecular machines or nanomachines. The idea of such machines first appeared in a 1966 science fiction  movie, Fantastic Voyage. This concept was so farfetched everyone assumed it was pure fantasy. In the movie a tiny submarine, smaller than a white blood cell, was placed into an important scientist's body so that his damaged brain could be fixed. This is a contemporary example of the importance of imagination -- and that what has been proven must first be imagined.  


However, we live in time that is quite self-conscious. And the constant comments and chatter that people now experience on their cell phones and social media has put an additional damper on this kind of thinking. I call this a 'Crisis of Imagination'.

Think I am exaggerating, consider these lyrics from a popular contemporary song.

Stressed Out  (2015) by Twenty One Pilots
Album: Blurryface
I wish I found some better sounds no one's ever heard
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new
I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sang

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I'm insecure and I care what people think

My name's Blurryface and I care what you think

I am not sure why Blurryface thought his fears would go away when he got older. As teachers know, kids often become quite critical as they grow up and lose the ability to draw or paint with the freedom they had when they were younger. As many people have pointed out, from Picasso to Einstein, this is neither necessary or desirable.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
Pablo Picasso

The Supertramp's Logical Song of 1979 says it best:
(Album: Breakfast in America)
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

The effort to make young people logical and clinical as they grow has been around for a long time. However, I do believe that our era today is more self-conscious than when I was growing up. I also believe that this can put a damper on 'thinking outside the box' or on fledgling ideas that are often rudely criticized before they have a chance to develop.

However, I also believe the ability to reach out to the creative and imaginative side can be recovered. Like anything, to be able to imagine you must do the work. Don't use it and you lose it. Like exercising muscles, you must use your imagination on a regular basis. And the more you use, it the easier it is to see new things in your mind.

Plan 9 From Outer Space was the winner of the Golden Turkey Award as the "Worst Film of All Time" and Ed Wood (writer, director and producer) as "Worst Director." Ed Wood is now admired for his perseverance as a moviemaker in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Oddly it was the Golden Turkey Awards that brought him out of obscurity and a reevaluation of his work; his relentless enthusiasm in spite of damning criticism has earned him a respect that he was never given in his lifetime.

Part of learning to imagine requires that you do not let others influence your ideas in a negative way. First of all you do not have to share your work unless you want to. Second when you do share your work pay attention to the attitude behind any comments. Did the person 'get' what you were trying to do; did they have their own agenda and see what you were doing as a threat or as incompatible with their preconceptions. Were they constructive or were they jealous? Everyone has their own point of view which affects how they see things -- but some people can be more objective than others.


In a limited way all of us use our imagination often. We use it when we think about an upcoming party on Saturday or when we think about our home when we are away. Imagination is always there, but is often used for everyday tasks rather than creative tasks.

So how could a person add to, develop and enhance their ability to imagine?

When I was teaching a short story creative writing class, I assigned the following exercise: I asked each person to go back to a house or place that they had known as a child and fully describe it. I asked them to walk through the place in their mind and to use all of their senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell etc. I asked them to touch the walls, look out the windows, smell the food in the kitchen, sit in a chair. No one that I taught over a number of years had any problem with this exercise and for many they felt it opened a door to the imagining they needed to write a good short story.

In a personal example, I built a small studio out in the woods of our property. I drew a crude drawing of what I wanted with measurements  (I really cannot draw) but it was good enough to tell the builder exactly what I wanted. Then I went into the woods, cleared the area where the studio was to be and put stakes in the ground at each corner with a string from stake to stake. Then I put an actual chair on the ground in the middle and looked out through the imagined windows, sat at the imagined desk and grabbed a book from an imagined bookcase. When the building was finished it was exactly as I had imagined it and it felt quite comfortable.

"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."
Thomas Edison

(Left) A MAGIC BULLET: In the early 1900s physician and scientist Paul Ehrlich imagined an ideal medicine, a 'magic bullet', that would attack harmful diseases but would avoid hurting the normal body. This idea has been a key concept in the development and discovery of a number of modern medicines, such a cancer drugs and antibiotics.

(Middle) WAR OF THE WORLDS: Robert Goddard was inspired by the fictional novel War of the Worlds of H. G. Wells which he read in 1898 at the age of 16. Considered the father of American rocketry, in this picture taken in 1926 he was standing next to the first liquid-propellant rocket -- an essential element of modern rocketry.

(Right) 2-WAY WRIST RADIO: In 1946 a 2-Way Wrist Radio was introduced in the Dick Tracy comic strip. In 1964 this turned into a  2-Way Wrist TV that Dick Tracy wore. A small wireless portable easy to use communication device such as this became a central idea that led to the development of cell phones.


I have always been interested in ancient peoples and cultures; I had what I called my 'museum' starting when I was ten years old. I collected all kinds of things from different time periods including Indian arrow heads and a Neolithic stone ax. My Dad encouraged me and brought me things from his travels around the world. And he told me a story of going into the Cave of Altamira -- which was open at the time -- and seeing the Paleolithic paintings on the cave walls. Ever since then I have been fascinated by this time in human history.

When I started writing this blog, one of my themes was that ancient people were just as smart as modern people, given the technology of their time. I was quite sure about this based on the quality of the 15,000 year old cave paintings at Altamira which were beautiful, had remained in good condition and also contained realistic drawings of bison.  

In my research for this blog I came across articles about the Neolithic passage-tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. Although people had been aware of it for centuries, it was only about 50 years ago that a dedicated archaeologist realized it was aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. As I read more about Newgrange, what I call 'bells and whistles' went off in my head -- a sign that there was something very significant about this new stone-age structure. My intuition and my imagination were starting to kick in.

Photograph of Newgrange showing how the light moves down the passageway. 

Used with permission: photo by Anthony Murphy,

So I collected photographs of Newgrange, read reports, and put together data about the way the sun entered the passageway. Next I imagined myself in that passageway as the sun entered it around the time of the winter solstice. The light came in, advanced down the opening, reached to the back and then receded -- an event that took about 17 minutes. As a photographer with 40 years experience I could see all of this quite clearly in my mind.

After much research and putting together data from various studies, I came to the conclusion that the Neolithic people at Newgrange, 3000 years before Greece or Rome, had built a precise instrument that could determine the day of the winter solstice in real time -- which the Greeks or Romans could not do. Whether I am right or not remains to be seen -- but there is a way to definitely prove it.  

Here is the link to this article which I first posted it on this blog:
Computing the Winter Solstice at Newgrange: 
Was Neolithic Science Equal To or Better 
Than Ancient Greek or Roman Science?

To my delight my article has been well received and reprinted at the official Newgrange website in Ireland.

So that is my story but here is another one by a master inventor with a detailed explanation of how he was able to imagine and then build a number of sophisticated electronic devices.


The American Magazine
April, 1921
Making Your Imagination Work for You
An Interview With Nikola Tesla

Two great men who lived by their imagination: 
(Left) Nikola Tesla "in front of the spiral coil of his high-voltage Tesla coil transformer" in 1896. 
(Right) Mark Twain playing with electricity in Tesla's lab in 1895.

By that faculty of visualizing...I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, business man, or artist.
Some people, the moment they have a device to construct or any piece of work to perform, rush at it without adequate preparation, and immediately become engrossed in details, instead of the central idea. They may get results, but they sacrifice quality.
Here, in brief, is my own method: After experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.
Then follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem. I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.
This feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously, though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.
Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind, I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch, I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made accurate drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.
The inventions I have conceived in this way, have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine, and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.
 One of Tesla's inventions, the electric induction motor of 1888, 
that he first imagined in detail in his mind.