Can making up ghost stories make you smarter?


We all know ghost stories. Ghosts are spooky. They do creepy & spooky things that scare us or maybe sometimes give us chills. But when you think about ghosts, what picture comes into your mind? What does a ghost selfie look like?

Ghosts come in all different sizes, shapes and colors. Yet, most often, we think a ghost has one head, maybe, in some cases, multiple heads. Hands, Legs. If we want to be a little more curious about it, who said that ghosts have to have heads, hands and legs? Ghosts are, well, ghosts. To most of us, some imaginary creatures, unless you really believe in the existence of ghosts, or have seen a ghost. For the rest of us whose ghosts only exist in imagination, why don’t we think of a ghost in the shape of a potato? Maybe a potato-head ghost! And, we can! That’s more important, that we can think of something which may not be possible in reality, but only in fantasy. That’s imagination.

Walt Disney imagined. Disney created the characters we all love. Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, Rapunzel and many more. My personal favorite, Sheriff Woody from Toy Story. Which brings us to the next story.

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple after 9 years of its formation, the company he co-founded with Steve Wozniak. The next thing he did after getting fired, was founding another company called “NeXT”, and shortly after that, one more company called Pixar Animation Studio. Pixar produced the world’s first computer-animated movie ever, Toy Story! The characters in Toy Story, like Sheriff Woody, Mr Potato Head, are real and have imaginary lives.

Sheriff Woody from Toy Story

Imagination, a fascinating thing that we can have. It comes free, without any price tag. As Albert Einstein said —

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

– Albert Einstein

Jules Verne wrote in his books, sending people to the moon by firing a large canon in 1865. You can imagine how far he imagined in his time!

The firing of the Columbiad.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy said in his speech,

“We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

– John F. Kennedy

In 1969, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and said,

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

– Neil Armstrong
Saturn V, Apollo 11 launch
Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon

It took about 100 years to fulfil Jules Vern’s imagination, but in his mind, that happened 100 years before it actually happened. All it took for Jules Vern was some imagination.

Going back to Einstein’s world, we can understand why Einstein emphasized so much in imagination. After all, he came up with the grand theory of the universe by imagining a guy falling from a tall building on the opposite side of his patent office. There was no guy jumping from the building, but he imagined what might happen if someone jumps. How time and gravity will work for him. With that thought, he came up later with the special and general theory of relativity.

Swiss Patent Office at Bern
Einstein at work at Swiss patent office

We might think in all our understanding of knowledge, maybe mathematics is the purest form of expression, without vagueness, fuzziness, imagination. Maybe it is pure black and white. After all, what can be clearer than 1+1 = 2? It turns out math has its own weirdness and mathematicians embrace imagination often to construct reality. Leonard Euler wrote the most beautiful equation in the history of mathematics, which is called Euler’s identity or Euler Equation. He wrote.

e^iπ+1=0

You don’t have to understand what this equation is or what it does. What’s fascinating here is he used a number called i, which is the squire root of -1, a number which only exists in imagination. It is not a real number, this number doesn’t exist at all. This number is an invention of imagination of logic. Hence, it is called an “imaginary number” or i in short.

Another elegant equation of quantum physics was written by Erwin Schrödinger, the Schrödinger equation, which can predict the outcome of a dynamic system, like atoms, its probable position at a given time. To do that, Schrödinger thought of everything (objects, you and me) as waves, waves like ripples in the water. I know it’s difficult to imagine that we are waves. But our entire reality, the everyday items we use, the very device you are using to read this article, follows Schrödinger equation. And what’s more interesting is, Schrödinger equation looks like this —

i.  \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial t}\Psi(\mathbf{r},t) = \hat H \Psi(\mathbf{r},t)

Again, you don’t need to understand the equation, but see that little guy “i” is there at the start of the equation. What is it doing there? Well, very interestingly, our every day’s day-to-day activities, our very existence of reality uses an “imaginary number” to describe itself. It almost feels like our imaginations have the ability to imagine.

Schrödinger also imagined an experiment with his cat where the cat was dead and alive at the same time. In Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, Schrödinger described the cat’s state as “superposition”. In layman’s terms, in superposition, anything can contain all the possibilities of its future.

If we think about it, we created our superheroes with supernatural powers. In a superposition state, you and I contain all the things we can possibly be in the infinite future. You probably wanted to be an astronaut, or a painter, or a state leader. Whatever you are now, we can’t determine that you are not what you wanted to be right now. In a superposition, you are everything. Imagine that!

Let’s talk about other things beside math and physics, may be everyday life, may be literature Imagine a world without Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling created a whole magical world at the age of 33, despite her personal struggles and suicide attempt.

During World War II, all German communication over radio was transmitted after doing some transformation by a machine called “Enigma”. The alias tried to crack that communication riddle. They tried to find the meaning of the message, using a lot of people’s time and effort. But a fella named Alan Turing imagined, Why can’t a machine do that work, decrypting another machine’s message? Not just he imagined, he built the machine and shortened the war by about 2 years, saving probably millions of lives. The imaginary machines were called Turing Machines. Today, we call those computers.

Turing Machine used for German code breaking
Alan Turin

Consider the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King. He said,

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”

– Martin Luther King

He imagined a world of equality. The imagination created his dream.

If you are still reading, by this time you might wonder what’s the point of this writing, it’s going nowhere. You are not wrong. I wanted to celebrate imagination. I tried to really understand what imagination is and what it can do. As mathematician, Roger Antonsen, said about understanding.

“Understanding something really deep has to do with the ability to change your perspective.”

– Roger Antonsen

That’s all I am doing here. I am trying to see “Imagination” in different lights, different perspectives. When we do that, when we change perspectives and try to understand the world from someone else’s perspective, that’s where one of the most sublime qualities of human start, which we call “empathy”. When we say, I have empathy for you, or I empathize with you, what it really means is that I understand you. And to understand, to empathize, requires imagination, the greatest gift mother nature gives us.

In life, we all experience our lives with our share of joy, pain, toil & tears. We often try to figure out the meaning of life. Perhaps, more than that, we want to be successful in life. The definitions of success can be different for different people. But in the current world scenario, it generally means being rich & powerful. Famous & influential as well, perhaps.

However, I think regardless of the meaning of success, we all want to be happy in our lives. Then again, happiness is not absolute. No human ever lives happily in his/her whole lifetime. We work hard towards our definition of success, to be happy. We can think of success as a reward for our work.

One of the greatest teachers, Nobel Prize winner physicist, Professor Richard Feynman said,

“I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things.”

– Richard Feynman

I would like to emphasize the phrase, The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery.

Professor Richard Feynman with his famous Feynman Diagram

In the end, I would say, let’s celebrate imagination. Not seeing it as a waste of time, instead, time that is well spent to understand life.


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