April 23rd: my daughter Elizabeth’s birthday (she’s 9)—and Shakespeare’s and J.M.W. Turner’s. Birthdays aside, they’re linked by a great theme: the imagination.
Shakespeare’s lovely lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream still resonate:
As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Shakespeare associates the imagination with “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” and we still tend to think of it as having a vaguely irrational, ephemeral (“airy nothing”), even slightly dangerous quality—good (even in excess) in writers and artists, but not in scientists, for whom supposedly hard-headed reason rules.
Great scientists have in fact always celebrated the imagination. “The gift of imagination has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing absolute knowledge,” Einstein observed. Francis Crick wrote that “The most important requirements in theoretical work are a combination of accurate thinking and imaginative ideas.” Yet in this age still mesmerized by the idea of the two cultures, imagination continues to be primarily identified with the arts.
Turner (who will enjoy his first major exhibition in the US in over forty years this June) fortunately had no qualms about letting his extraordinary imagination be inspired not just by nature but by science as well. Friend of John Herschel, Charles Babbage, Humphrey Davy, and Michael Faraday, he kept abreast of scientific advances, and in the case of Faraday, successfully incorporated into his late paintings the profound metaphysical shift electromagnetism would gradually bring about in our conception of reality.
You’d think we’d at least nurture imaginative ability at school, but one of Elizabeth’s teachers told me that, far from stimulating the imagination educationally, we’re killing it. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s is still wonderfully alive, one reason why Smart World is dedicated to her.
Happy Birthday, Lizzie!