Krista's Journal: Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge

March 1, 2012

I interviewed James Gates once before, a few years ago, when we were creating our show on Einstein's ethics. We talked then about Einstein's little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his childhood in segregated schools — experiences he does not take for granted now that he is a preeminent, African-American physicist. But what I was so taken by in that conversation years ago was how he explained Einstein's social activism in terms of the values and virtues of scientific pursuit. He spoke of empathy as a potential byproduct of the process of discovery. A scientist's "What if…" questions can evolve into human "What if…" questions.

James Gates' capacity to share both from his humanity and his life in science strikes me again, and comes through even more forcefully during our more recent conversation.

S. James GatesThis time, I spoke with him about his particular passions. He is a string theorist, with a special emphasis on supersymmetry — a quality in the universe which, if demonstrated, might help support string theory as a way to reconcile the greatest puzzle modern physics has tried to solve since Einstein. Simply put, the universe seems to follow different rules at the highest and the smallest levels of reality. String theory imagines that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, all of reality is brought into being by filaments of energy. These "strings" might span the whole of reality, and possibly explain why gravity behaves so differently from varying vantage points. Some leading string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions — far more than the three or four dimensions we are equipped to experience.

And that is about how far I comprehend the idea behind string theory. The lovely thing about a conversation with James Gates is that my incomprehension does not matter. He gives me much to chew on, and be enriched by.

For starters, he is just the latest voice — others include the astrophysicist Mario Livio, and the astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — to let me in to the secrets and power of science's language of mathematics. He calls mathematics a kind of sixth sense — an organ of "extrasensory perception" — for scientists. So by way of mathematics, scientists perceived and described the atom years before microscopes sophisticated enough to view them could be invented. Now, with mathematics, he and his colleagues are tracing clues and cosmic hints that may never be provable with our five senses — but that may shift our very sense of the nature of reality.

One of the things James Gates and some of his colleagues have "seen," for example, are underlying codes embedded in the cosmos — error-correcting codes, like those that drive computer programs. (Full disclosure: he's a fan of The Matrix — so am I — and we hear a little bit of that iconic movie in this hour.) This is just one of many observations he makes that raises questions, he says, that physics alone can neither answer nor probe.

Cover of Physics World June 2010He is also working on an interesting frontier of expanding science's own imagination about mathematical equations in describing reality. He and his colleagues have recently employed something called adinkras, visual symbols that may be able to unlock truths that equations alone cannot capture, just as there are truths that only poetry can convey.

There's also a lot of fodder for one of my fascinations with the realm of science — the creative, playful, even spiritual act of naming things, especially in physics: beauty quarks and anti-beauty quarks, sizzling black holes, and superstrings, for example. The term adinkras, which comes from West Africa tradition and connotes pictures having hidden meaning, carries on this tradition.

James Gates' own delight is infectious and illuminating, as much when he is letting us in on mysteries of the cosmos as when he shares the human lessons of his life in science. I'll leave you with this, for example, as an enticement. When I asked him what he thought of Einstein's statement that "imagination is more important than knowledge," he said he had puzzled over this for many years:

"For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it's constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.

So how could it be that play is more important than knowledge? It took me years to figure out an answer. And the answer turns out [to be] rather strange&hellip Imagination is more important than knowledge because imagination turns out to be the vehicle by which we increase knowledge. And so, if you don't have imagination, you're not going to get more knowledgeable."

Voices on the Radio

is Toll Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland in College Park. He serves on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

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