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There is nothing like knowing it all to kill the imagination. When we become expert, or think we have, we get the benefits of intellectual shortcuts and far greater processing efficiency-but we suffer the cost of closed-mindedness. Having seen it all, we stop looking. Having been there, we stop going. Having done that, we stop doing. To rekindle the imagination we would do well to rediscover the sense of awe-of wonder-that every child comes equipped with and that seems to seep out along the trip to adulthood.
For instance, take a trip to a small inflatable dome in Asheville, North Carolina.
There you’ll find David McConville, a young devotee of Buckminster Fuller, the polymath inventor of the geodesic dome. Like his role model, McConville is part artist, part scientist, part dreamer, and part tinkerer. McConville and his team, fed by eclectic apprenticeships in astrophysics, event production, and multimedia engineering, invented something called the GeoDome. Maybe fifteen feet across, eight feet high at the peak. As portable as a tent, as immersive as a womb. Step into the darkness, feel your way to a little canvas camping chair, be seated and gaze upward.
Here begins an experience of pure wonder. Using Google Earth, real-time NASA data, state-of-the-art animation designed by a Pixar veteran, a single laptop, a projector, and an Xbox joystick, McConville takes the guests on a journey to...anywhere they want in the known universe.
Start here on Earth, outside of New York, say, and zoom out to the moon, to the edge of the solar system, past the Milky Way’s far tendrils, headlong into a snowstorm of other galaxies, a storm that goes on and on. Oh, back to Andromeda? No problem. Next, flip a switch and visualize the magnetosphere and the assault of energy unleashed by the sun on Earth. Another button illuminates the surprising swarm of satellites and space junk orbiting our planet. Fly toward the constellations, see the stars of Orion’s Belt as we learned them in school, as dots to connect, painted on the ceiling. But then turn the perspective 90 degrees and now see the belt sideways, in 3-D: it thrills and embarrasses to realize that the three stars of the belt are not remotely on the same plane. Now, at full dizzying speed, back to the polar icecaps of our planet, where visualizations à la An Inconvenient Truth show various scenarios of glacial melt.
This is not your father’s planetarium. This is a fountain of youth.
Awe matters. McConville uses the GeoDome to stir policymakers into action about climate change, to light up schoolchildren about space and the stars, to educate laypeople about the interdependence of everything. As he narrates his tour of the cosmos, statements like "We are made of stardust" become deeply moving, nearly spiritual insights. He’s not dazzling us with rocket science (though there’s plenty of that); he’s simply unleashing our capacity for awe. Our gratitude for that makes us ready and willing to learn.
John Seely Brown, former head of Xerox PARC lab and now an avid chronicler of advances in digital learning, describes a "golden triangle" of inspiration, imagination, and innovation. At the heart of the triangle is awe. "Awe drives imagination," he says. "A great teacher can take a plum and see magnificence in it." Imagine, then, a GeoDome for a plum. Imagine a GeoDome for the world as an ant sees it, or as a photon of light sees it. "What does it mean to be able to hold the world in awe?" asks Seely Brown.
That’s for you to know...and for you to find out.
Excerpted from the book "Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility" (2009) co-written by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon, Executive Director of Lincoln Center Institute, and reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.