On Failures of Imagination

Yesterday I talked about ‘expected surprises‘ with regards to Yi qi. Yi qi is a surprise because its anatomy is so unlike other theropods, and it suggests that dinosaurs were experimenting with flight and/or gliding in some ways that were quite different from our current understanding of feather and bird wing evolution. But it was also not entirely unexpected, because scansoriopterygids had super weird anatomy to begin with that gave us enough information to speculate about possible gliding adaptations in those dinosaurs, even though the general consensus was that it was pretty far-fetched.

But today I wanted to talk about a related feeling, which I like to call the Failure of Imagination. Last summer I was working my way through a DVD set of classic sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure movies that I had picked up at some point. I wound up watching a lot of these with friends and basically Mystery Science Theatre 3000-ing the films, and in particular the old space adventure movies from the 40s-60s provided much entertainment. It’s really fun to take a look back and see what sorts of things people envisioned the future holding for us – space travel, exoplanet exploration, robots. But what also struck me was the things that the filmmakers and storywriters couldn’t even imagine.

They could imagine spaceships and robots, but they couldn’t imagine wireless technology. Or storing information in digital form rather than on spools of tape.

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) 

They couldn’t imagine non-button-and-dial-based instrumentation. 

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Crash of Moons (1954)

And they definitely couldn’t imagine women in roles other than administrative assistants (or as the bad guys). SO MANY SPACE SECRETARIES.

 First Spaceship on Venus (1960)

I kept thinking to myself – what sorts of failures of imagination are we having in palaeontology today? We can imagine so many things. But I wonder what kinds of things we won’t even know we don’t know. When we try our hand at speculative biology, what will scientists 80 or 100 years from now think was charming, or quaint, or ahead of its time. Failures of imagination are one of those things that make me nervous as a scientist, because I don’t like the idea that I won’t even know what I’m not imagining.

One thought on “On Failures of Imagination

  1. As a paleo artist I think about this constantly… In fact I found myself on your blog because I was looking at ankylosaur skin impressions for an illustration I'm currently being commissioned to do of a trackway site in Utah where literally every animal has to be imagined and reconstructed speculatively, because no good skeletal remains are known from the exact stratigraphic range as the tracks. On the one hand it's fun to try and come up with plausible intermediate forms, but man, the whole time I'm thinking that the piece is one discovery (or opened/prepped jacket) away from being totally inaccurate, despite all the work and research that has gone into it.

    Great blog. Keep up the good work Victoria.

    Brian Engh


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