Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

The Invisible World

November 8th, 2012

Imagination and the Invisible World

for Aaron Weyenberg

The creative adult is the child who has survived. --Ursula K. LeGuin

Usually, we humans experience life only at the human scale, as physicist Lisa Randall points out in her beautiful, thought provoking book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. It is very difficult to see out into the vast mysteries of infinity, or to interpret the fabric of reality at the subatomic level. Both scales are so distant from our everyday perceptions that on some level, they both seem almost imaginary. And yet at this point in human history, we have to find a way.

Just today, the discovery of a potentially habitable Super Earth planet was announced. Yesterday, a Hot Jupiter was introduced to our world, bringing the total number of exoplanets to 832. These planets are discovered because they wobble and leave a transit shadow as they pass between the stars in their system and the lenses we use to detect them. The Higgs Boson, an elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model of Physics, was also detected not through tangible means but rather because physicists measured the expected particle debris that would theoretically result from the decay of the Higgs.

At both the cosmic and nano levels, we can now detect and measure the absence of something in order to confirm its presence. This requires great imagination and focus, particularly if we want to start applying this vision to life at the human scale, which I believe we can.

Today, two women, Ola and Lydia, came to visit us at Science House. Science House is a seven-story townhouse in Murray Hill built by Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln for his daughters. In the center, an oval staircase ascends toward a skylight that opens out onto a roof deck with a view of Manhattan’s most iconic skyscrapers, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. Hot pink geraniums and delicate snow princesses planted there in the spring continued blooming until Superstorm Sandy rolled in.

We met in the Celestial Salon to talk about the relationship between play and science. We were surrounded by images of the cosmos captured with the most powerful telescopes ever created and launched into space by human beings but we remained unable to see them because the room was dark. The lights haven’t yet come back on after Superstorm Sandy. The surge of power coming back on after a week destroyed the lightning system. We met by lamplight, which glazed the experience with immediate intimacy.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. --Margaret Mead

There we found ourselves, five people at a table, trying to find ways to combine our work. Lydia and Ola are part of an organization that teaches children how to play. They told us about what recess is like when conflicts flare up and prevent learning from taking place later in the day. We spoke about kids in the favelas in Brazil and American schools with kids right here in New York who are barely literate as they reach the eighth grade. The letters of their own names are sometimes unfamiliar to them but at the same time, they are physically capable of producing children of their own, and they do. Childhood ends rapidly for many kids as they turn to drugs, crime and prostitution because that is the reality they perceive at their immediate human scale.

We told Lydia and Ola about our work, including the Points of Science project, which includes sending microscopes to kids so that they can reveal an invisible layer of the world--the iridescent texture of peacock feathers, the surprising number of tiny lives in a droplet of water, the weird body of a tick--and then share the stories of their exciting discoveries with our global platform.  

The overlap between science and play is the key to creating an education system and lifestyle that prepares children for the reality of modern life. Play is not a luxury. It’s a gateway drug to problem solving. As the global culture and economy shift, one of the main skills kids need is the ability to have fun, because that’s when they’re most engaged. We need kids to be fully engaged in order to really absorb the STEM literacy that we all keep talking about.

Fun doesn’t make life less serious, but it does very importantly help us take ourselves less seriously and realize that we’re all in this together. Fun enables us to give our brains a break from running all the conditioned programs of culture, pressure and biology that govern our interactions all day, every day in ways we can’t begin to imagine, the same way we can’t really visualize, not exactly, what the Higgs Boson is or what it means that we’ve identified 832 exoplanets--out of how many? Billions? Trillions? Infinity?

Here we are, somewhere between the infinite planets and the subatomic particles. Through the rigorous exploration of science, we will begin to understand at new levels, including, most importantly, at the human scale. In order for this to happen, we need to make science fun and engaging for kids who want to express themselves and tell stories about their own lives, feelings and reactions through sharing their discoveries and acting as a team.

Play shows us who we are and how we process the world so we can make it visible to one another and ourselves at all levels. 
Our ability to detect and illuminate the invisible world--whether planets, subatomic particles or our own emotions--is amplified by imagination.

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