IPSC 2014: Imagination is more important than knowledge

Posted on Sun 18 May 2014 in public speaking, meta

From 12th to 17th May I took part to the International Public Speaking Competition (IPSC) 2014 in London, representing my country, Italy. The topic was Imagination is more important than knowledge, and the title of my speech, which follows, was The largest dancing floor. The video of the italian version is available on YouTube or at the bottom here.

THE LARGEST DANCING FLOOR (Italian candidate speech)

What I propose today is a journey. A journey with our imagination, through physics, to disclose a picture of the world far more appreciable than the one we usually have.

Have you ever thought about how fake the reality we see is? Looking around us, we see all kinds of different things. And yet, it looks to me that we give for granted the most basic assumption, which is that these things exist as we see them. I mean, we see a penguin and we think that yeah, that's the classic example of the capital-P Penguin, of the "penguiness". But where is this "penguiness" to be seen? Can we think of it? Can we say it is real?

Wondering at what is real and what is not means digging really deep into philosophy, which would probably lead us nowhere, but if we stick to physics… what do we get? We do get something interesting indeed. Physics tells us that all things, ranging from stars to snails, are all made of the same stuff, which is atoms, little balls that we, as limited beings, are not allowed to see. These balls arrange one beside the other for tremendous lengths and give rise to our beloved penguins. Now, even though different atoms exist, they come in a finite number. What makes up all the infinity of beautiful things around us is the way atoms put together, the way they have metaphorical sex. Atoms are really nothing more than the alphabet of nature: with a set of finite items, countless combinations are possible. So the first lesson of our journey is that, sadly, penguins do not exist as penguins, but should be imagined as groups of atoms.

Perhaps, a more surprising fact is that atoms are mostly empty. What we call the nucleus in the atom, takes way less than 1% of it, all that is left is empty space, the space where electrons live. This means that what appears to us as rock solid, as completely full in some way, is actually almost completely empty. And this rises a number of super-intriguing questions among which: what does it mean to "touch"?

What touch is, has a very interesting explanation. We are used to seeing things touching each other, (which happens when the distance between two objects becomes null). But can something like this really happen? Actually, it can't. It is not possible for two atoms to come in contact or be squeezed together. What happens is that electrons get very jealous of their homes around the nucleus: they have lived there all their lives and are not willing to give them up to foreigners. So when another atom comes near, electrons start fighting for their own space and prevent it from coming close. In this sense, electrons are very bad hosts. You can picture the clapping of your hands as a struggle between electrons, in which each of them fiercely defends its own space, and the more you push your hands together, the harder the combat gets.

These electron-fights are just one example of the bustle of nature, of the activity that goes on under the hood even though we cannot see it directly. What we can do, is imagine it. Think of a glass of water. It may appear like the most uninteresting, still and dull thing, so quiet it may not even be worth considering. But atoms are never still, they can never be. They are the guests of a never-ending worldwide party in which music never stops and they never get tired of dancing. They are always giggling and buzzing, and sometimes their dancing becomes so frenetic that they jump away from the dance floor and start floating in the air. This is what we call evaporating, and now this is a dull name for an exciting phenomenon.

Now, what's the point? First, these things are fascinating to me. Every time I am feeling down or bored, I always wear my special imaginary glasses to look at reality the way I have described it, to remind myself how interesting and amazing our world is. But the point is that you can know all these facts, and yet look at the world as the darkest and dullest place ever. Most people who know these things do not look at the world as the largest dancing floor, in which a huge number of excited dancers move around making up the objects that we see, and that is because they are not using their imagination. Knowledge is helpful, indeed it is needed, for imagination to work. But facts alone are nothing, we need imagination to understand their meaning. The key to a happier, more interesting and fascinating world is imagination.