Intelligence & Imagination


It’s often said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but have you ever considered that intelligence is also in the eye of the beholder? Certainly, modern education is moving towards recognizing that intelligence comes in multiple forms, from the classic intellectual intelligence all the way through to emotional intelligence, etc. Perhaps an example will help.

While looking through my daughter’s school work, I noticed this nugget, “What is the difference in price between these two cars?” A question that’s surely at the forefront of every nine year old girl’s mind. I asked her about her answer. “Yeah,” she sheepishly replied, “I got that one wrong.” I smiled at her and said, “On the contrary, there’s nothing wrong with your answer, it’s just not the answer the teacher was looking for.” Her face lit up.

My eldest daughter piped up, saying, “No, Dad. Look, the question is clearly asking for the difference in price. She should have said 1,251 dollars.” Which highlights the stark difference between our two girls. I agreed, saying, “Oh, yes. You’re right. The teacher clearly wanted an numeric answer, but, strictly speaking, this answer is still correct. What is the difference in price? Well, they are not equal so one price is higher than the other. It’s simplistic, but it’s not incorrect.”

The point is, rather than marking the question unequivocally wrong and moving on to the next question, the teacher should pause and reflect on what this tells her about my youngest daughter, as it speaks volumes for anyone that’s listening.

  • My youngest daughter’s answer is accurate but not precise. It’s accurate in that one of these cars is more expensive than the other. It’s imprecise in that it doesn’t identify what the difference is in dollars.
  • The answer is not expressed in the expected numeric format
  • My youngest daughter has a strong preference for verbal expression over numeric calculations
  • Her immediate reaction to seeing a question like this is a general statement, an approximation
  • Questions that use mixed formats (words, images & numbers) evoke a mixed response inconsistent with the rest of the test, so what was intended to simplify the question complicated her answer, confusing her as to the appropriate response

Our education system is, somewhat understandably, based on conforming to certain norms but this often fails to recognize that intelligence comes in different formats and needs to be encouraged in different ways. Rather than making her feel bad about her answer, I had an opportunity to help her understand why she answered the way she did and encourage her to be more precise moving forward.

Ironically, modern life has been shaped by those that saw the world a little differently, those that didn’t answer questions as expected.

Sir Isaac Newton was intensely curious about why the moon seemed to defy gravity, as apples falling from trees certainly didn’t. Far from an urban myth, Newton reasoned that the same force must be acting in both cases even though he initially had no reasonable explanation as to why the apple would hit the ground while the moon never did. To all appearances, the moon didn’t seem to be falling at all. Then a moment of clarity struck him as he thought differently about the problem.

Cannonball trajectories were reasonably well understood in practice, being necessary for warfare. Newton thought deeply about how cannonballs fall to Earth. Realizing the Earth was a sphere, curving away beyond the horizon, he asked what would happen if you fired a cannonball so far that it fell around the curving Earth, and the concept of an orbit was born. Newton realized that the moon, the apple and the cannonball were all following the same law of gravitational attraction. People had stared at the moon, watched cannons being fired or fruit falling from trees for centuries, but Newton saw the world a little differently.

In much the same way, for all his mathematical brilliance, Einstein uncovered the notion of relativity using his imagination, by seeing the world a little differently.

Einstein’s genius lay in ignoring the obvious and thinking laterally. To derive his special theory of relativity he imagined he was in an elevator/spaceship (anything without any windows so there was no external point of reference). He realized that whether his spaceship was sitting on the launch pad or accelerating smoothly into space at exactly 9.8ms2 the sensation would be the same. As he thought about it, he realized that, if the engine was perfectly smooth, there was absolutely no way he could figure out whether he was accelerating through space or still sitting on the launchpad. Toss a ball, measure the parabolic arc, and it would be exactly the same in both cases, and so the equivalence principle was born, physics was rewritten, and the world has never been the same again.

Sitting there with my daughter, I told her about these examples and said it’s OK to see the world a little differently to everyone else. Thinking she was flat-out wrong, stifled any creativity, forcing conformity through a sense of failure that caused her to feel sad and dejected. In contrast, understanding why she gave the wrong answer and showing her how she saw the problem from a different angle to what had been intended, brought a smile to her face and stimulated her thinking.

Intelligence and imagination are inextricably related, if you want to encourage one, you’ve got to fan the other. In this regard it is interesting to note that science and fiction are the most unlikely of bedfellows. Why would someone with a love for science, a discipline founded on accurate, unbiased, evidence-based assessments of reality, have any interest in make-believe? And yet science fiction is a leading genre of novels and movies. I can understand why editors back in the 30s lumped Science fiction & fantasy together as a genre, but, really, they’ve both matured into their own genres. These two fields are entirely different in their content and approach to storytelling. Sci-fi seeks to stimulate the intellect through imagination, or at least, it should.

Seeing the world a little differently isn’t a bad thing. Think about how many millions of people have ridden in elevators, fascinated by how their sense of weight changes with the acceleration/deceleration of the lift, and then never thought any more about it. Thankfully, Einstein took that thought further. And this highlights an interesting point. A lot of the time we’re looking for new discoveries without realizing Newton and Einstein didn’t have any new discoveries to work with, they were working with observations that had been around for years, they just looked at them differently. In Einstein’s case, the Michelson-Morely experiment, that showed that the speed of light was consistent regardless of motion, had been around for almost twenty years before Einstein stumbled upon relativity as the answer to the paradox.

Einstein & Newton propelled science forward by looking at things differently. Perhaps we all need to see the world a little differently from time to time 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Intelligence & Imagination

    • Modern physics is highly complex and abstract, and I don’t pretend to understand a fraction of it, but I think it’s easy to forget that it has its basis in explaining real-world phenomena (albeit very small phenomena in the case of quantum mechanics), and it’s easy to forget that scientists like Einstein started down these paths using simple observations. I wonder just how many people have had baths before and since Archimedes without taking that next logical step and realizing that the amount the water level rises signifies the volume of an object. It was a revolutionary concept. So long as you didn’t mind something getting wet, you can take any object, no matter how twisted and unusual, drop it in a bath, mark the new water level and, presto, the difference tells you the volume exactly. Forget about a shower, baths are cool 🙂

      • I am a physics geek, Peter, but I don’t have the math to be one in real life. I do love to read about Relativity and Quantum mechanics and the developing theories surrounding gravitational lensing and dark matter, but it will always be as a fan, not as a scientist. I am fascinated by the mind of Einstein and the other great minds of history. My colander brain has trouble holding thoughts long enough to follow in their footsteps, but I do love it!

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