Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Imagination and knowledge

A few weeks ago I mentioned a quote attributed to Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I had not been able to discover its source.

Reader Michael Medeiros came to the rescue. The quote is from an interview by George Sylvester Viereck in the October 26, 1929 issue of the Saturday Evening Post -- which I now have in hand.

GSV: "If you owe so little to the experience of others, how do you account for sudden leaps forward in the sphere of science? Do you ascribe your own discoveries to intuition or inspiration?"

AE: "I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists...went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong."

GSV: "Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?"

AE: "I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

Well, yes. But imagination without knowledge is pie in the sky. If the photographic images of those stars had not shifted by the predicted amount during the total solar eclipse of 1919, Einstein's beautifully imagined theory would have counted for nothing.

His theory also predicted that the universe must expand or contract -- a result which his intuition and imagination were not prepared to accept. So he added a term to his theory to keep things steady. Then, a few years later, Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason at the Mount Wilson Observatory discovered that the galaxies are in fact racing away from each other. Einstein hopped a train to California to have a look. The red-shifts were unmistakable. The universe is expanding. Knowledge trumps imagination.

The lever by which we pry open the world's secrets may be imagination, but the fulcrum is knowledge.