Imagination in science: fact or fiction?

Posted 28 May 2021

When scientists at a Hawaiian observatory spotted an object soaring through the solar system, it was like science fact meeting science fiction.

Astronomer Avi Loeb suggested that that the sighting in 2017 might not be an asteroid as the observers had first thought, but an object from another star.

Professor Loeb, of Harvard University, pointed out that the speed of the object’s movement in an eccentric orbit, combined with the absence of a gas or debris trail, leads to just one conceivable explanation -- it was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilisation.

As part of a series of four free online events on the theme of ‘Science, Imagination and the Big Questions’ presented by York Festival of Ideas, Professor Loeb will explain his controversial theory. The event, Extra-terrestrial: intelligent life beyond Earth, chaired by physicist and writer Professor Tom McLeish of the University of York, and in conversation with Dr Amanda Rees, sociologist of science and science-fiction, will take place on 11 June. 

The Festival Focus series, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, explores the long but often hidden story of the vital role that imagination plays in science. Also featured are Science, Imagination and Poetry on 14 June, Narratives of Conflict and Warfare on 15 June and This Species Moment on 18 June.

As well as Professor Loeb and Dr Rees, expert speakers taking part in the series include violinist and composer Anna Phoebe; poet and priest Malcolm Guite; poet Katrina Porteous; science communicator Franziska Kohlt; and the host of the USA On Being radio show and podcast, Krista Tippett.

Professor McLeish, who has curated the Festival Focus series, said: “We are enormously grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for its support in presenting this compelling series of events. They will demonstrate how imagination has been, and will continue to be, integral to scientific endeavour and its links to the arts and humanities as we grapple with the big questions facing us.”

The first event in the series will guide the audience through the mind-stretching story of possibly the first interstellar visitor to be spotted in our solar system and discuss the profound implications of this visitation for science, religion, and the future of our species and our planet.

At the Narratives of Conflict and Warfare event, experts will discuss how the use of combat rhetoric in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, while intended to raise morale, can have the opposite effect. Instead, they will introduce a range of more constructive metaphors in effective science communication.

Other events in the series will chart the huge resurgence of science-inspired poetry and explore what it means to be human.