InStar Trek, Captain James T. Kirk would close his voice-over at the beginning of each episode with the phrase “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” These words inspired a generation of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and designers—including women and people of color who took greater risks to achieve success. They also inspired some people to envision a world living in peace and striving to understand its place in the larger scope of the universe. Star Trek was the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry. Unlike many creators of science fiction, who tend to look at the future through the lens of the present, Roddenberry imagined an entirely different universe, one where people have put their differences aside and come together for the betterment of all. In contrast to his contemporaries, instead of asking, “What can we do?” he posited a different question: “What should we do?” For Roddenberry, it was important to imagine not only what society could look like once people lived together in peace, but also a future based on scientific concepts that were somewhat plausible extensions of existing 1960s technology.
As with Roddenberry’s Star Trek, virtually everything in our lives outside of nature itself was conceived through someone’s imagination. Through the art of abstraction and elaboration, imagination allows one to visualize that which doesn’t exist. Unlike creativity, which is connecting what already exists in new ways, or innovation, which is the useful application of that creativity, imagination is the underlying current or mental “flow” that ultimately moves ideas through the creative and innovative processes.
As a construct, science fiction often disrupts the status quo and requires audiences to reject current reality along with its accepted ideas and methods. For example, in the decades prior to the Apollo missions, traveling to the Moon was imagined only by writers of science fiction. Years later, science fiction became fact when Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind” onto the lunar surface. In similar fashion, based on what Roddenberry and his team imagined with Star Trek, an inspired fan base would go on to turn many of the technologies imagined in the series into reality.
The 3D printer used on the International Space Station (Photo: NASA)
The cell phones of the late 1990s look strikingly similar to the handheld “communicators” used by Captain Kirk and his crew. GPS systems and the voice features of Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant sound a lot like the female computer voice on the show. Video-based communication between people on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise with those from other worlds or ships is prescient of FaceTime or Skype. The earpiece that Lieutenant Uhura used at her communication station closely resembles early Bluetooth headsets. Star Trek’s color, flat video screens were introduced when large, black-and-white “tube” televisions were the norm. Spock frequently inserted memory cards into bridge consoles decades before compact flash cards existed. One could even argue that “beaming” has existed for some time now—paper documents have been “beamed” throughout the world through fax machines since the 1970s and through the use of 3-D printers, tangible items including mechanical parts, food, and even artificial human organs are now “beamed” through the air. In fact, this is how many replacement parts are currently sent to the International Space Station.
However, imagination isn’t just in the purview of science fiction writers. To have any chance of returning to the Moon and reaching Mars and beyond, imaginative thinking and the subsequent creativity and innovation that come with it will require everyone involved to begin looking at things differently and visualize new plans to achieve the goals of human space exploration and settlement.
I frequently talk with people who profess that they aren’t very imaginative or have difficulty with visualization. I believe the problem is more a matter of “don’t” rather than “can’t.” Just as the average person cannot roll off the sofa and run a marathon without proper training, the ability to visualize requires preparation, practice, and the discipline to push yourself further. A number of strategies and activities can help to improve your ability to visualize new solutions:
• Allow Yourself to Daydream: In a Psychology Today article discussing brain-scanning technology, researchers found a correlation between robust daydreaming and intelligence. In other words, allowing one’s thoughts to bounce around while accessing stored knowledge creates stronger memories and experiences. Those with higher intelligence allow this process to occur, enabling them to yield greater insights as a result. Some of history’s most brilliant people—from Mozart to Einstein—have credited their imaginations as the source of their intelligence. To enhance the benefits of daydreaming, one must allow time for it, acknowledge when it’s happening, and even have paper nearby to take notes for later reference.
• Learn New Things: The process of creativity or “sticky thinking” requires an ever-growing base of knowledge available for one to access and make new connections. Imagination and visualization are no different. Since visualizing things often depends on mentally altering things you already know, a large base of knowledge and personal experience will greatly enhance the ability to see new things in the abstract. It’s not difficult to visualize a red elephant if you have already seen elephants and various shades of the color red.
• Try to Focus: I’ll never forget when I took my daughter to see the IMAX movie Hubble. The movie featured one of the space shuttle’s missions to repair Hubble while in orbit and displayed a number of the breathtaking images taken by the telescope. When viewed on the immense OMNIMAX screen, the movie seemed larger than life and captivated my then 17-year-old daughter’s attention. She was engaged and asked questions for about 15 minutes until she received a text message and some Facebook updates. Today, when it seems many of us lack the inclination to focus on one thing for very long, it’s no wonder people struggle to visualize new worlds or complex concepts.
• Ask Questions: The great educational theorist John Dewey once said that a problem properly defined is half-solved. When one applies “sticky thinking” to a properly defined problem, the odds are greatly improved for developing better solutions. However, properly defining a problem is typically more difficult than it sounds. It requires stimulating, open-ended questions that facilitate making new connections. Questions like why, what if, what would that look like, and what would it take can help one see the larger context surrounding the problem and better visualize how to solve it. A simple question led to the invention of the Polaroid camera, after a 3-year-old girl asked to see a photo of her that had just been taken. A group of watermelon farmers in Zentsuji, Japan came up with a more efficient way to ship and store them when they asked the question, “What if we made the fruit square?”
Me, "Getting Out of Normal" at Comic-Con.
• Get Out of Normal: I bought a ticket to my first Comic-Con in 2015 with only one purpose in mind: to meet William Shatner, the “original” Captain Kirk. What I witnessed was amazing. Many of the participants were deeply involved in costume play (cosplay). Bright colors abounded, merchandise changed hands at a furious pace, comic book illustrators had their works on full, brightly-lit display, and gaming was in play everywhere. I began the weekend as an outsider who had only engaged in the outer fringe of this world. I got a taste of what it was like to immerse myself in a unique subculture, one where the focus was imagination and the willingness to immerse yourself in worlds that don’t exist anywhere except in the minds of the people who created them. People need to “get out of normal” and allow themselves to see things differently. Comic Con was anything but normal for me, but I found it incredibly motivating. We all need a place to “escape” to that opens our minds to new things and inspires us to greater levels of imagination and creativity.
As throughout much of history, imagination transforms the world at record speed and shows no signs of slowing. Just as the Apollo program forced us to visualize our planet in a new way, returning to the Moon could ultimately seem like a “tiny step for mankind” once we’re standing on Mars and other, more distant worlds.
Paustian will chair the “Science Fiction to Fact” track at ISDC 2020.