The Imagination of Science and Science Communication

Creativity is often thought of as anathema to the mechanically calculating mind of a scientist. But how true is this? I’ve had the impression for a while now that this dichotomous view of “Logic vs. Creativity” – often framed as “Science vs. Art” – is gravely wrong, and that imagination is vitally important for the research scientist – and, of course, the science communicator.

We’re all science students here – some of us are further along the (potential) pathway towards research and academia than others – but it’d be safe to assume that most, if not all, of us have started to internalise the various disciplines we are studying and intend to study in some amount of detail. What do I mean by “internalise”? Well, most scientific knowledge isn’t obvious to us – hence the need for experimentation and the scientific method in the first place – and we often have our perceptions of the world shifted when we learn new facts and theories in different areas of science. Once these facts and theories become an embedded part of our regular perception of the world, you could say we’ve internalised that scientific knowledge.

But internalisation is never complete. Sure, I can learn that my body made of cells and those cells are composed of proteins and lipid membranes and so on, but I’m not going to constantly see everyone I meet as purely collections of tiny bags of organic molecules. I have to slip into seeing the world this way. My studies in biochemistry and molecular biology have allowed me access to this point of view, but it’s nowhere near my default state.

This is where imagination comes into the picture. When I suspend my common-sense perceptions and see the apple I’m chomping on as a collection of living, foreign matter I’m willingly inserting into my body, even though it contains chemicals that are toxic (albeit in such vanishingly small quantities that they have no effect at all on my wellbeing), I’m imagining how the world really is. In a sense, I’m building a model of the world based on what I know is correct, rather than what I’m observing through my senses: evidence-based imagination, I’ll call it.

Evidence-based imagination has a purpose in “merely” allowing scientists and science-enthusiasts to integrate internalised scientific information into forming a picture of the world, but it can help in the process of scientific discovery as well. What is an hypothesis but a distillation of some aspect of an imagined universe, a way that things might be? If a scientist wants to know if an hypothesis they think up is correct, they mentally try it on for size – they imagine what the world would be like if what they suppose is true. This allows them to generate predictions and build experimental procedures. If my apple is really a collection of chemicals, including a particular one that I suspect may be lurking around inside its slowly-ripening flesh, how might I detect it? How can I, the scientist, imagine it would interact with a biochemical assay? How about a pass through a high-tech, shiny machine in the basement of some lab in the Chemistry building? Or perhaps bacteria would grow differently in its presence. Imagination can hold a candle up the darkness of possibility.

Science communicators cannot forget about imagination, however. While a full-time science communicator might not be working in a lab or in the field, throwing their internalised knowledge against the frontier of human ignorance like a scientist, they do work with the knowledge science has already amassed and help people without a background in science understand it. Part of this involves thinking about how scientific concepts can be translated into simpler versions – for example, the plasma membrane of a cell is a complex mixture of lipids and proteins, but in order to educate a layperson about it, a science communicator needs to distill some basic truths from the chaotic whole. Imagining models of the plasma membrane with simpler parts and fewer components would allow them to construct metaphors and analogies to get information about the membrane across. But they also need to have the more complex models hidden away in the back of their mind, so they don’t communicate concepts that are false or analogies that are too far removed from reality. This constant process of reduction and verification is one of the central pillars of science communication, and a great deal of creativity is required in imagining how models to be communicated play out in the mind and potentially interact with prior knowledge that an audience may have.

Imagination is an essential component to the world of science. Scientists and science communicators aren’t necessarily the cool and calculating stereotypes often seen in movies and the media – there’s an aspect to their work that requires them to process possibility, to fantastise about facts, and to dream of different directions for their thoughts to go.