Imagination? That’s not Scientific!

I was having thoughts this morning at 5 am, as you do, about the life of the imagination. I have blogged before about my dislike of the phrase ‘it’s just your imagination’, meaning ‘it’s not real and therefore not worth your consideration.’ But today I’d like us to consider the proposition that imagination is as important in science as it is in art.

I’d better say at the outset that I’m not a scientist. But I am married to someone with qualifications in various sciences and who, moreover, is able to tell their quarks from their gluons (don’t ask me, I just know they’re something to do with particles.) But from reading about scientific discoveries I’ve learned this: that imagination is key to scientific discovery. There must be a ‘what if?’ moment, a moment of imagining or positing that something hitherto unreal might just turn out to be real. You take the idea and then you test it: what if time were non-linear? What if dark matter made up most of the universe? What if two different particles could occupy the same space? CP Snow complained loud and long about the two cultures but I’m not sure we’re any further forward than in 1959 when he gave the lecture. Yet there is more that unites us than we know. In science you take a theory – something imagined, sometimes wildly imagined – and test it until you find out whether it works. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In art it’s the same: you imagine a character or a story or an idea: What if there are other worlds next to our own? (His Dark Materials.) What if there are wizards living amongst us? (Harry Potter.) What if an ordinary Belfast girl was recruited into the IRA without realising it? (Milkman by Anna Burns.) What if I write a novel about time (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu) or even outside time (Ulysses)? What if I write a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence? Will that work? (Spoiler alert; I tried it and it doesn’t.) You imagine it and then you test it to see if it works in reality. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t – but there’s more that unites science and art than divides us, and the more I write the more I am convinced of this.

Speaking of having more that unites than divides, I watched a stunning video last night on Owen Jones’ Youtube channel. I subscribed to this as a Patreon supporter a while back and this week he’s posted two amazing interviews; one with Patrick Magee, the Brighton Bomber, and the other with Jo Berry, daughter of a Tory MP who was killed in the blast. You’d expect the interviews to be confrontational, combative, telling widely differing stories: what you wouldn’t expect is that in 1984, a matter of weeks after Jo lost her father, she arranged to meet Magee in order to try to understand why he had done what he’d done and to attempt some sort of reconciliation. The very last thing you’d expect is that these two would become friends.

The interview with Magee is difficult to watch: he acknowledges the pain he caused but stops short of apology, saying instead that this was a war and there was violence on both sides. But the interview with Jo Berry was stunning. She was more understanding, more forgiving and more restrained than I even want to be (I don’t go for revenge but at least give me self-righteousness when I’m wronged!) This interview will be up tomorrow so I’ll post a link (we Patreon supporters get to see it ahead of time.) There were many issues raised by these two interviews so I’ll come back to those in a day or two (or three, seeing as it’s the weekend tomorrow) but I guess all these projects of reconciliation are about imagining something better. I’ll drink to that.

Kirk out

6 thoughts on “Imagination? That’s not Scientific!

  1. I see Owen Jones’s posts on Facebook, because I have ‘liked’ his profile [I’m not sure what the difference is between ‘liking’ and ‘following’, but heigh ho], so I saw the links to these interviews. I have to be careful when I use the word ‘theory’ when associated with a science post on Facebook, because there is apparently a difference between a hypothesis and a theory, and I generally get them confused. Given my inherent pedantry, I suppose I shouldn’t whinge……. 😉 Cheers, Jon.

  2. Okay then, quarks and gluons! You did ask (not on here though).

    As you know, atomic nuclei are made up of neutral neutrons and positively charged protons. Except for hydrogen, all of them hold together in spite of the fact that like charges repel. They do this by converting some of their mass to energy, so atomic weights are always slightly less than the sum of the masses of the particles making up the atoms. This energy is called the strong nuclear force and is carried by particles called pions. It also operates within protons, neutrons and other similar particles, of which there are many, and within the pions themselves. Each nucleon (proton or neutron) consists of three quarks with fractional charges called quarks. Protons are two “up” quarks and one “down” quark and neutrons are the other way round. Gluons are the particles holding these together and have the unusual property that the force they exert gets stronger the further apart the quarks are. This means that if enough force is exerted on an individual quark to separate it from the rest of the nucleon, it will be enough energy to create a new quark, so free quarks don’t exist for long. Gluons are to the strong nuclear force as light is to electricity, but instead of just having positive or negative charge, gluons have eight possible “charges” referred to as “colour charge” or “chromodynamism”. This is named by analogy with colour, since additively red, green and blue make white, and similarly colour charge is called red, green and blue and they will try to make white just as electricity tries to return to neutral (e.g. by giving you an electric shock). There are also anti-colour charges called anti-red, anti-green and anti-blue. Each gluon carries a colour charge and an anti-colour charge, leading to nine possibilities. However, one of these is neutral, so there are only eight. The neutral one is subject to quantum mechanics and rather than just being white has an equal probability of being any of the colour-anticolour combinations.

    I don’t entirely understand all of this.

    Because there are these combinations, it’s possible to arrange gluons into a diagram with a particular symmetry which enables it to be transformed in various ways (e.g. flipped over, rotated), which implies it’s a particular symmetry group called SU(3). The “white” state is in the centre of this diagram which means it stays the same no matter what you do to it.

    Mesons, e.g. the pion and the muon, are also like this, i.e. they’re made of quarks held together by gluons.

    When I was a child, I envisaged a technologically advanced future in which just as electricity had replaced chemical energy (molecules and atoms interacting becoming charged subatomic particles interacting), there would be a new generation of machines which ran on “gluicity”, i.e. using gluons like electrons. However, gluons are gauge bosons rather than fermions like electrons, so the analogy doesn’t quite work, and no, I do not know how this could be done. But you never know!

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