THE POWER OF IMAGINATION
Manila, July 11, 2003 By Maria Isabel Garcia (STAR) How is it that musicians, painters, literary artists and great scientists are able to see things that do not seem to be there in this ordinary life that we ordinary people see? And yet, when they draw, paint, sculpt, write or express in mathematical formula what they have seen, the picture of reality to the rest of us, with commonersí eyes, is suddenly almost magically transformed.
Why is it that sound is more than sound when it is music, especially from the revered Masters such as Beethoven or Mozart? To hear the greatest sound of joy made for joy from Beethoven, I know beforehand the nature of sound as it travels as waves from the source. Frequency will be responsible for the pitch. Amplitude will be the extent to which these waves push molecules back and forth as it travels in all directions and so on and so forth. I know all these workings. That is, until the music reaches my ears. Because when the Ode to Joy reaches that point, my earlobes curtsy in awe and my eardrums eagerly pave its labyrinths to welcome this odyssey of joy to let it meet my slumbering symphony within. And I donít think it is because I am an adult and have cultivated these things. My nephews who are in that age group (above five below 10) where they love the revelry of their own sounds are unfailingly silenced with mouths open, when they hear this Masterís Ode to Joy in any form, even a capella from their two older cousins who under very odd circumstances, memorized this in German. Beethoven transformed sound waves that were useless to him into music for the ears that can receive sound waves but could not make music. And how could someone who was deaf create this glorious ringing majesty of joy?
He imagined it. This is the power of imagination. This is the torrential current in the human mind that unites and stretches across the disciplines of learning, from the broadest of the arts to the "softest" of the social sciences to the "hardest" specialized branches of the physical sciences. This is how humans reach for what does not seem to be there, scoop it with their mindís eye, sculpt it with their talent and give back to us a piece of life that transforms our own view of the world and our own lives in it.
It was the same even for the most famous scientist of the last one hundred years, Albert Einstein. A violinist himself, Einstein thought of Mozartís music as so "pure and beautiful that I get it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe." I recently walked the Hall where the work of his imagination was on special viewing by museum guests. It was a simple equation Ė e=mc2 Ė but with it, he overturned what physicists have thought all along. He did not use any special apparatus to come up with this. Just the power of his own thought, what physicists call a "thought experiment." His imagination liberated physics from the prison of rigid schooling that Einstein abhorred. Before Einstein, scientists have always thought that matter could never be destroyed. But Einstein imagined nature deeply and he said that matter could be destroyed. In fact, Einstein said, matter and energy are one and the same thing, theoretically transformable to and from each other under certain conditions. Scientists at that time at first were skeptical but it did not take long before it began to make sense to them. The imaginative formula was also later proven empirically as from this fundamental formula, other scientists were able to calculate the energy that could be released by splitting atoms leading to the Hydrogen bomb. "Woe is me," Einstein uttered when the H-Bomb was dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But human imagination did not drop the bomb. Hands did. War did.
Einstein won the Nobel Prize for his discovery called the Photoelectric Effect, which explained that light was both a particle and a wave. I will not go into the nature of light in this column now but it was his discovery that light traveled at a constant rate (186,000 miles per second) that explained so many other physical phenomena that Newtonís law could not embrace. More than a decade of my life was constantly spent in the company of someone who threw scientific theories and ideas over breakfast, joyfully blurring the pleasure divide between thought-at-large and personal life. So to me Einstein was as pleasurable as croissant and coffee with a loved one. I had help with my imagination and am deeply grateful. But I have much deeper respect and admiration for those who lacked the facility to encounter fact in the "normal" way but persisted under great odds to render to us a facet of reality again hidden to a commonerís view. Such was the literary imagination of Helen Keller who was deaf-blind.
I took a walk along the river path along the Hudson River one beautiful day and imagined what it looked like from the Manhattan huddle of skyscrapers. I had my own words nestled in my mind dressing themselves up to perform in this column but they retreated to give way when I read what Helen Keller "saw" from the Empire State Building. The Hudson River, she said, looked "more like a flash of a sword-blade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters; stared up to my face and the solar system circled about my head" (The New Yorker, June 16-23, 2003). To those who are not blind, colors occur in a spectrum visible to the human eye, enabling a color to be explained in terms of wavelength in nanometers (a billionth of a meter). But this was not available to blind Helen Keller. So she used her imagination, her "mindís eye." New Yorker writer Cynthia Ozickís words lights the prism that is Kellerís imagination: "While red may denote an explicit and measurable wavelength in the visible spectrum, in the mind, it varies from the bluster of rage to the reticence of a blush; physics cannot cage metaphor."
Metaphor is the flesh of imagination for writers.
Not only was Helen Keller supremely imaginative in her condition but also for her time. She also dreamed of the future for now in the planetarium about six blocks up from a point in the Hudson River is a passport not only to the solar system but also to the universe. The latest astronomical data from NASA, including the latest photographs of our cosmic horizon (the extent of universe observable to humans so far) from the Hubble Space Telescope, are projected onto a dome above you and you take a trip from our planet, to the solar system, to our galaxy the Milky Way to the next galaxy, Andromeda, to our local group and Super cluster to our cosmic horizon Ė so far. It is beyond the power of words to describe how small in scale humans are relative to the expanding universe. But, as the planetariumís narrator-voice of Tom Hanks echoed over the vastness of the universe projected onto the planetariumís dome as I fixed my gaze: "We may be small but we do not think small. We managed to figure this much." Same carbon, calcium, iron in the brewery of stars are found in our lungs, bones and blood in our bodies with minds that now gaze at the universe which in turn also lives within each of us Ė literally. We have the power to know this. That is the power of imagination.
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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