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Learning and Imagining

By Daniel Hubbard | March 4, 2012

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” -Albert Einstein

That is an intriguing quote. When you first encounter it, that quote doesn’t have the feel of  something that a scientist, a pursuer of knowledge, would say. Surely, dreaming of polka-dotted unicorns is not what he was putting above knowledge. It isn’t really. There is more to the quote-

“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.”

So what Einstein meant is that it takes imagination to learn and advance. As long as there is an “unknown” out there, it is more important to have the imagination to learn than it is to already know.  It takes a certain type of controlled imagination to proceed.  The imagination figures out what might be done next. The imagination might create a solution long before you have any way of knowing if the solution will work.

The Rules

The stages of learning to do just about anything fall into two categories. First comes learning what to do, what steps to take, what paths to follow. You learn the rules. Second comes learning how and when to zig-zag within the rules, bend the rules, stretch the rules and perhaps rewrite or break the rules while staying true to the principles behind them. Perhaps, as Einstein did, new rules can be imagined and then moved from the world of imagination to the world of knowledge. The idea isn’t to learn imaginative ways to get it wrong. The idea is to learn to imagine what might be right when the rules fail to provide guidance. First one learns the nature of the box, then one learns how and when to let the imagination outside of the box.

I’m about to introduce a couple of groups to genealogy. There is a lot to know. Genealogy has “rules,” made from the accumulated and summarized wisdom (a fancy way of saying things learned slowly from mistakes that have been made), and beginners need to learn those rules. “Keep track of sources” is a rule of genealogy, and one that I would argue should never be broken. “Don’t assume,” “start with yourself,” the list goes on. There are also those bits of knowledge that need to be understood even if they are not normally stated as rules—when this or that record is the best place to find a specific bit of information and what to do if that record fails to provide what you had hoped. Then there is the fact that what those records are depends on the time and place one researches. There is a truly vast array of knowledge that can be useful but there is no recipe book. Some imagination is always needed. The hard thing about beginning is learning enough or, if we go back to Einstein’s quote, knowing enough to use the imagination to lead and not mislead.

Breaking Rules

What has me thinking about this is one of the other rules of genealogy—”work backwards without skipping generations.” Everyone needs to learn that. “Don’t start with what great-aunt Florence told you about her great-grandmother” as I like to put it. Yet while some rules may be hard and fast, this one is more a matter of prioritization, probability, risk analysis and the actual necessity of forming, not assuming, connections. It seems to be a place where there are times when some imagination and rule bending can work.

If all else fails and, for example, an extended family that is likely to contain a grandfather can be identified, can this rule be broken? If there is the understanding that one risks working on a family that is not related, can this rule be broken? If you realize that you can’t simply work backwards from the grandfather, assuming him to be the correct person but that you are trying to prove or disprove a connection from grandchild to hypothesized grandfather by attacking the problem from two directions, is that ok?

I would have to say yes. With all those caveats understood, with all your hypotheses under firm control and clear in the knowledge that you may be about to work on a family that you might only be able to prove is outside your family tree, then this is a rule that can be broken.

Whenever I teach this rule to beginners, I feel a little twinge. It is something they need. There are too many traps waiting for them otherwise. Imagination needs to be restrained. Yet, I have to hope that someday some of them will get to the point were the imagination has been trained and a rule or two can be broken when needed and result in success. As Einstein implied, a well honed imagination can be a very powerful thing.


As for those polka-dotted unicorns I mentioned, there is a possibly apocryphal story that when an acquaintance asked Einstein how she could best prepare her young son to become a scientist. His response was to read “Fairy tales and more fairy tales” because imagination is essential. Now that is taking imagination seriously.


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Topics: Creativity, Genealogy, Research Mindset | No Comments »

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