Imagination: The Rocket Fuel of Science

Question: What is the role of imagination in science?

Michio Kaku: I believe that science is the engine of prosperity. Everything we see around us, the goods and services, the iPods, the internet, the GPS system, all of it comes from science. But what is the rocket fuel? What is the rocket fuel that makes science work? That makes this engine propel itself? And I think that rocket fuel is curiosity. It's imagination. It's the innovative spirit. That's what keeps science alive. And I would hope that we could nourish that among our young people. But unfortunately, oftentimes, that rocket fuel is wasted.

If you take a look at our educational system, you'll realize that all of us are born scientists. All of us are born wondering why does the sun shine? Where did I come from? What's out there? How big is the world anyway? All of us are born scientists until we hit the danger years. When we hit about 13, 14, 15, those are the danger years and we start to lose these young scientists left and right. So, by the time they graduate from high school, we have only a tiny, tiny fraction of the original 100% of young people who are born scientists. They drop like flies. What's wrong?

Well, many things are wrong. But among that is the way that we teach science. We teach science as a list of facts and figures to memorize and we crush, literally crush, any curiosity and spirit of innovation and imagination from young children. For example, my daughter once took the New York State Regional Exam. She took the exam in geology, and I had a chance to tutor her by looking at this manual. And I realized that the entire manual consisted mainly of memorizing the names of crystals, the names of minerals, hundreds of them, and of course, all the things that you are going to forget the day after your exam. So, it's not that our students are stupid, they can memorize these things. They are so smart. They've figured out that this material is totally useless. Our students are so smart they’ve figured out they're never going to see these things ever again. They just have to memorize it once in their life, throw away their book, and they're absolutely right. They will never, ever see these hundreds of minerals, crystals, again in their life.

So, my daughter comes up to me after struggling with all this memorization and she says to me, "Daddy, why would anyone want to become a scientist?" That was the most humiliating day of my life. I spent my entire life being a scientist trying to understand the way nature works, trying to tease apart some of the fundamental laws of physics, and my own daughter says, "Why would anyone want to become a scientist?"

At that point, I felt like taking this book and ripping it apart. Well, in the future **** the Internet in our contact lenses. And we're going to be able to see in our contact lenses the entire sum total of all knowledge accumulated since antiquity. And our kids are going to be able to download all the exam questions that depend on memorization of silly facts and figures they will never ever see again in their life. And you know something? I think that's the way it should be. Because science deals with concepts, principles. And how many principles are there? Not many. The principle of evolution, the principle of relativity, draconian physics, quantum theory, they're not that many principles that drive all of science. And so I believe that in the future, when we have the Internet everywhere, in our contact lenses, in our eye glasses, professors and educators are going to have to throw away their exams and begin to teach science in the way it should be taught.

Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, tells this story. When the future Nobel laureate was a child, his father would take him into the forest. And his father would tell him about birds; why certain birds are shaped the way they are, the coloration, the shape of the beak, their feeding habits. Everything about the life history and lifestyle of birds. And then one day, a bully comes up to him and says, "Hey Dick, what's the name of that bird over there?" Well, he didn't know. He could tell that bully everything about that bird, its coloration, its shape, the shape of its beak, its feeding habits. Everything about that bird except one thing. Its name. And then the bully says, "Hey Dick, what's the matter? You stupid or something?" And at that point, he got it. He began to realize that for most people science is nothing but memorization. But what is memorization? You can look it up on the internet in the future. Science is not about memorizing facts and figures. Of course, you have to know the basics, but science is about principle. It's about concepts.

You know, my favorite Einstein quote is as follows. Einstein once said, "If a theory cannot be explained to a child, then the theory is probably worthless." Meaning that great ideas are pictorial. Great ideas can be explained in the language of pictures. Things that you can see and touch, objects that you can visualize in the mind. That is what science is all about, not memorizing facts and figures.

Image courtesy of John A Davis/Shutterstock

"Science is not about memorizing facts," says Michio Kaku. It’s about innovation and curiosity and imagining Internet access in your contact lenses.

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