Many years ago I had a teacher give a writing assignment I’ll never forget. He lit a match, let it burn down to his fingers, and then blew it out. He then asked us to open our notebooks and write an account of everything that had just taken place. By the way, this wasn’t an English class, it was 10th-grade science.

Only recently have I begun to understand what I think the teacher was trying to show us. He was giving us a glimpse of the scientific discovery process and, through our own efforts, a better picture of the relationship between man and science.

Needless to say no two reports were alike. Some focused on the teacher, others on the matchbook in his hands. Some were a few sentences in length, others filled several pages. Some were shallow, while others went into great detail, discussing everything from friction to chemicals to combustion.

To most students’ relief, the teacher neither collected nor graded the papers, but if he had, I think we all would have passed. In fact, that was the point of the whole exercise: To show that it’s possible, necessary even, to observe and interpret the same event from different frames of reference and at various levels of detail in order to make sense of it.

Once we realize this, and more importantly, once we’re aware of our own frame of reference and levels of understanding, then can we properly and effectively apply science. Einstein knew this, Edison knew it, and so did all the great scientists and inventors who ever lived.

As 21st-century technologists, we too need to know where we stand in the scheme of things. Unfortunately many people seem to be getting through engineering school without a clear understanding of where their scientific knowledge leaves off and where the limitations of physics actually begin. Today, “It can’t be done,” too often means, “I don’t know how to do it.”

An even bigger impediment to making technological strides is the tendency to blindly cling to a particular view. Without a doubt, most engineers find it easier to delve than broaden, to increase their depth of understanding rather than change their perspective. The ability to consider other frames of reference – to see a problem from different angles or in a new light – is that elusive quality called imagination. Even Einstein admitted, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Ultimately the scientific discovery and application process works best when those who are involved in it realize that science is bigger and deeper than they are. Like Michelangelo painting the Sistene chapel with a candle resting above his head to keep his own shadow from impinging on his work, we as technologists need to make sure we keep our personal limitations off the canvas of science and time. If we can do that, then it’s possible to drive scientific achievement beyond our individual abilities.

Science (if you stay out of the way) is willing and able to fuel itself. Our lack of knowledge doesn’t have to slow the process if we choose not to let it. Perhaps Einstein put it best when he said, “I like to think that the moon is there even though I’m not looking at it.” That’s the sort of confidence we should have in our own scientific endeavors.

Incidentally, there’s a nice tribute to Albert Einstein in Brushing Up this month. It came as a surprise to us, but after we finished the issue, someone pointed out that Einstein was born the month of our writing (March) and passed away this very month (April) exactly 45 years ago. Coincidence? I guess it depends on how you look at it.