Next time you’re in class, try this experiment. Take a moment to look around you. Can you see anything that isn't somehow a product of human imagination?
Your phone. The room you’re in. The technology you’re surrounded by. Even the whiff of your neighbour’s deodorant. And how about the very idea of a university itself. (Who made that up?)
This imagination game is important to me. For one thing, the imagination is what makes a university unique and amazing. University is the place where human beings like you and me imagine and invent tools and ideas that have never existed before. But it’s also the place where you imagine, and often reinvent, yourself.
I'm a professor here at UBC. Not too long ago, I was also a first-year student here. I was pretty shy. (I still am, but I've gotten better. There’s nothing like a job that forces you into public speaking every single day… scary!)
Now when I was a first-year student, I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to live in my imagination.
I think we all feel a little of that. But it was more than just shyness. When my eyes were shut, the imaginary worlds inside my head were much more real than the stories and places I saw with eyes open. My imagination was often better. I loved fantasy, science fiction, video games. I would have binge-watched, or played, anything with magic, dragons, or light sabers. How can the so-called real world compete with those fantasy worlds, where you’re the hero of your own storybook?
Yes – it’s perfect in there. But here’s two problems I had. One: It isn’t real. And two: it doesn’t really make a difference to anyone else what you imagine ‑ until you make it real.
So it became my mission to find a way to make my imagination real and to find some way it could make a difference.
I majored in Classical Studies because it captured my imagination. Ancient history seemed like the coolest fantasy world ever, and all the adventures and stories there were real. It was history. More than that, when I immersed myself in the heights of ancient Athens, Greek democracy, law, literature, philosophy, economics, the origins of physics, mathematics, or love poetry (all ancient Greek words, by the way), I was discovering anew one of the basic wellsprings of today’s entire world.
That really made my imagination come alive. That made it real. But I also realized then how exercising your trained imagination on anything – the imagination trained by an historic culture, a mathematical theory, a piece of music – gives you lift. It gives you the height to see how things could be different – from “up above”.
As Archimedes said: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” That’s how your imagination, inspired and trained in this place, makes a real difference: what you choose to study at this university will become a place for you to stand, outside the world as you find it, to make the world, and make yourself, anew.
We are, all of us, every student and professor at UBC, a team: we are the Research & Development team of the human race.
We are here to try out the big new ideas. Whether we get them from thought-experiments, science experiments, history, literature, art, fieldwork, the farm, or the grey matter inside our heads, we’re here to do the blue-sky thing. To imagine how things could be different. How things could be better.