As director of a research group,  I used to tell my graduate students that the most important quality they needed in order to be a scientist was imagination.  I might have added persistence, the ability to delay gratification, forever if necessary.  For if their curiosity were ever gratified, they would cease to strive.  And science is more about the process than the results. 


At the time my students were more concerned about the homogeneity of the population they were studying, the appropriateness of the statistics.  I tried to tell them that scientific rigour without imagination is intellectual death, but equally imagination without scientific rigour leads to delusion and chaos. You need the right balance to be good scientist. Experiments are easy if the question is right.  And to ask the right question, you need the imagination.


Imagination allows you to see things, not as they are, but how they might be.  It’s about the image, not the object.  It’s make believe, delusion even.  But without imagination, we cannot plan, we cannot work things out, we cannot explore, investigate or deduce. 


Imagination is perhaps the greatest characteristic of the human mind – the single feature that has made us so dominant and successful.  It is the apogee of consciousness, but yet it is informed by the unconscious.  How often have we had the experience of going to sleep on a problem and coming up with the solution?


Imagination allows us to reach out from the mundane, the familiar, the quotidian and dare to see things not as others see them but from a completely different perspective.  ‘Dare to be a Jonah.  Dare to stand alone,’ was the message that Viscount Stansgate used to exhort his son, the young Anthony Wedgewood-Benn with.   Tony Benn had political imagination.  It was in the eyes – the cartoonists saw it – that hint of madness.  Margaret Thatcher had it too. Even Tony Blair.   


This week, Einstein and Eddington has been screened on BBC1.  Two images capture the essence of scientific imagination to me.  One was of the young Albert, having just been rejected by Elsa, standing in the middle of the street in Berlin in the pouring rain with the traffic swerving either side of him. He is desolate.  Life holds no meaning for him, but gradually a smile dawns on his face as he realises that light, like the cars passing either side of him, does not travel in a straight line but is bent by the gravitational force of large masses. 


The second was of Arthur Eddington, clearing the table and asking his sister and his friend to hold the cloth out while he places a loaf of bread in the middle of it. In so doing he demonstrates how the tablecloth representing space is distorted by the gravity of the loaf, which represents the sun. He then takes an apple and rolls it round the contours.  ‘And this is the orbit of the planets,’ he concludes with a flourish.  Brilliant!   


Eddington was much more of a pragmatist than Einstein. He was reputedly ‘the best measuring man in England’.  By comparison,  Einstein, a theoretical physicist who invented his own mathematical symbols and absolutely refused to conform, could seem quite mad.  Einstein needed the more controlled imagination of Eddington to come up with the experiment to prove his theories, but what an imagination.  Who but Eddington would have thought of setting up a campsite laboratory on a hill top on the island of Principe off West Africa to photograph the eclipse of the sun and prove that the light from the stars lying behind the sun is bent by its gravity?    


‘Discovery favours the prepared mind.’  To be effective, imagination has to be contained by method and the exponent needs sufficient immersion in their subject to invent the theory, devise the experiment, make the observation – about ten thousand hours of it according to author, Malcolm Gladwell.  Alexander Fleming would not have realised the significance of his contaminated petri dishes if he hadn’t spent half a lifetime staring at bacterial cultures.     


Gladwell’s new book is called ‘Outliers’.  It is about the ecology of success and makes the point that genius is not born but created.  The computer geniuses that work in Silicon Valley have a disproportionate tendency to have been born in 1955 because they would have been 21 in 1976 when the computer revolution started and therefore best placed to realise its potential.  Asians are so good at mathematics because, according to Gladwell, growing rice in paddy fields is so complex and labour intensive with so many variables to factor in, that it is an excellent training for the mathematical mind.  To be really good at anything, you have to ‘live it’.  Top class gymnasts, tennis players, ballet dancers, musicians do little else but practice.  As Eddington commented, ‘This is what I was made for.’  The particular drift of a person’s imagination is determined more by culture than by inheritance.   


As a young researcher, my boss used to accuse me of trying to reinvent the wheel.  ‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ he would comment as I showed him my latest set of results.  He was right.  Any field of intellectual endeavour, whether in the arts or the sciences is not so much about making brand new discoveries, but of seeing things in a different way that makes more sense to the changing culture.  The great orator and debater, Edmund Burke, realised it, ‘This power of the imagination is incapable of producing anything absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it has received from the senses.’  But nevertheless, seeing things in a different way can lead to progress.  ‘Imagination is the engine of change.’   


But imagination is more than that.  Imagination makes sense of our experience.  It generates our life script, the narrative which sustains us, the purpose that motivates us.  Our fear of the unknown is so great that we use our imagination to fill in the gaps and invent a convincing story that we can believe.  This is part of the learning process – to find out about something – to imagine what might be so and then to test whether our ideas conform to our observations, whether we can dare to put our faith in them – for a while.    But the world is always changing.  What seems like a good idea this year may seem stale and unhelpful next.  Knowledge is not written in stone; it’s scrawled on the sand and the tide keeps coming in. 


In fact we might say, as John Lennon did, that nothing is real (and nothing to get hung about).  Everything is perceived by a brain that is conditioned by experience and given meaning by our imagination.


Imagination is the engine of creation.  It what drives artists, writers and composers to create symbols that represent the meaning of things. Even science is directed by the rules we have invented out of our imagination.  Indeed, at its furthest outreach, theoretical physics can more like a religion than a science.  We cannot see quarks and bosons.  We can only use our imagination to derive the concepts that infer their presence from what we can measure and observe.  Science is like a shark, it has to keep moving forwards, otherwise it dies. And imagination is the bosun that drives it forwards.


The big questions, like the purpose of life, the shape of the universe, the nature of consciousness, the meaning of love, are so far beyond our comprehension that we have to make extensive use of imagination to create a virtual reality. 


Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone
but it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me
Strawberry Fields Forever 1967


It would be such a dull world if we could explain everything by scientific observation and measurement.  There has to be some mystery in life and we still have to strive to make sense of it.. Our gods are fantasies, but are none the less, potent symbols of comfort and security in an uncertain world.   ‘We console ourselves with our imaginings and our delusions.’  We need something to put our faith in, even if we know it is fallible, but that can co-exist alongside the measurable, the concrete. 


‘Aboriginals believe in two forms of time; two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity, the other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the “dreamtime”, more real than reality itself.  Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. (In ‘The Last Wave’,  a film by Peter Wier)


When I was working at a mission hospital in Uganda in 1967,  the people would only come into the mission for serious illness that only western medicine could cure – often by surgery – gonococcal strictures, obstructed labour, massive tumours.  Most other illness they took to their local medicine man, who made them better by a combination of herbs and narrative. 


Science can live alongside religion.  It has to. Science can provide a structure for our imagination.  In fact if we broaden the vision, we might say that both science and religion are different aspects of philosophy.   



Imagination plays such a crucial role in human relations. Empathy binds us to others by imagining what it is like to be in their skin, but that is a projection conditioned by our own needs and experience.  We all need to believe that the one we love most in the world, loves us.  There’s no proof and we may well be deluded, but our imagination protects us from the insecurity of doubt.


But imagination can also create doubt.  Indeed some are so damaged by the vicissitudes of life that they see threat everywhere.  The world is a fearful place. Imagination can make us ill. Fears that cannot be resolved may be held in the body as symptoms, but these all too readily capture the imagination and become the source of our fears.  But although this is a delusion, it is a palpable and tangible delusion that offers the hope of medical resolution.  (See ‘Not all in the Body; when trauma goes into the body’-  30th September, 2008 and ‘The Eloquence of the Body – 23rd November, 2008.)


If we live too much in our imagination, we can lose touch with reality. Imagination that is not grounded in reality is the route to madness.  Beliefs that have no concrete basis are delusions.  Psychosis is a cultural phenomenon, when a persons beliefs and behaviour are no longer syntonic with the society they live in and threaten its integrity.  Imagination must be grounded, contained within the culture.  If it loses its cultural roots, it becomes a symptom of madness.  (See ‘Why traumatic life events can make people mad’ – 1st October, 2008).


Scientists and artists can be so dedicated to their beliefs that they exist in a hinterland of madness.  The stereotype of the mad scientist is a familiar one and so many artists have suffered from mental illness that it can almost seem a pre-requisite.  Isolated in a landscape of abstraction, if they don’t have normal human relationships to keep them on track, they can easily get lost.     


When Einstein was developing his theory of gravity, he was in serious risk of madness.  Separated from his wife and children, abandoned by his mistress, debarred from the university, he lived in a world of the symbols he had invented.  He didn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t look after himself.  His appearance became increasingly dishevelled and his behaviour excitable and bizarre.  He was rescued through his contact with Arthur Eddington, who recognised his genius and set out to prove it. This led to a reconciliation with Elsa and with the university and an identity in the wider world.  Without Eddington, Einstein could have been dismissed as another crazy jew and died in a concentration camp.