Knowledge or imagination?

5th March 2010 at 00:00

Robert Hooke was a brilliant wee man who had the misfortune of becoming entangled in a series of disputes with a brilliant big man, Isaac Newton.

The latter took every opportunity to put the former down. Thus, the quote about having seen further than other men due to standing on the shoulders of giants is more likely to be a jibe about Hooke's stoop than an expression of the collaborative nature of scientific progress. Ponder that when you next play your Oasis album.

Sadly, it appears that Newton wasn't a very nice person, even if he was one of the all-time great thinkers.

Another great thinker, Albert Einstein, said imagination was more important than knowledge. Looking back, I may well have subconsciously embraced this doctrine in my early university career. You do wonder, though.

Did Einstein never visit the dentist? Did he have a vasectomy? Would he have made the same quote when someone was about to begin drilling his teeth or set about his nadgers with a scalpel? Sorry, but sometimes knowledge trumps imagination.

What do you need to know about astrophysics? I expect that there isn't a physicist in the country who could not name the planets in our solar system. Is this an important thing to know? While knowing the names of planets should never be used as a test of someone's abilities as an astrophysicist, it is likely that an astrophysicist will know them because learning about any science means learning via a narrative of the development of ideas.

These ideas are kicked off by observations. The word "planet" comes from a Greek word meaning "wanderer", because they noticed wandering stars.

For many of us who started off being interested in science as children, our first forays into the subject would involve accumulating factual data. Aged eight, I didn't have the cognitive ability to do much more. I could "recipe follow" to perform certain experiments, a favourite being to add vinegar to bicarbonate of soda. Rather than forming a universal bee and wasp sting cure, this fizzed up, releasing carbon dioxide, whatever that was.

When I took S3 physics and chemistry, I came to these subjects with a jumble of facts and phenomena, not to mention a few misconceptions. Some knowledge was superficial: there's a planet called Jupiter. Other knowledge was immensely helpful: Jupiter is the most massive planet, or Jupiter has the strongest gravitational field.

These became stepping stones to the concept of a gravitational field strength that was dependent on mass. Simple facts and observations were clues. The denouement was the physical concept. The great minds of science have had the imagination to go from one to the other.

We stand on their shoulders.

Gregor Steele upset a tourist guide in Cambridge by opining that Newton wasn't nice.

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