Science Storytelling

Most scientists aren’t so great at telling stories. Living, breathing, discovery-based science is something we experience every day, but most scientists never learned how to tell that story to people. Over at The Story Collider, scientists and non-scientists tell stories to show us how science affects us every day. It’s a cabaret-style performance, told like a science-themed This American Life. The storytelling project takes place both onstage in New York and online through The Story Collider podcast and magazine.

Co-founder Ben Lillie is a high-energy particle physicist-turned writer and storyteller. He’s performed at Moth StorySLAMs and is a writer for TED.com, and Brian Lecht is a postdoctoral researcher in theoretical particle physics and string theory. Together they coach willing scientists on their narratives, and the result is pretty amazing.

Allison Downey, an award-winning singer-songwriter and professor of creative arts education, describes the story of her and her behavioral scientist husband’s clash of maternal instinct and science in raising their son:

‘Sleep training?! He’s a baby! He’s not a rat for your evil science experiment!’ And the conversation degenerates from there to John reminding me that he does have a PhD in this, and they don’t just give those away, and my reminding him that his PhD is irrelevant, because I am Michael’s mother and I know best….and this is how our fierce debate of nature versus nurture begins, or as I thought of it, maternal instinct versus cruel heartless science.

Virginia Hughes over at The Last Word on Nothing describes the Story Collider show she attended:

Last week, for example, evolutionary biologist Diane Kelly told us about her research on armadillo penises. In the early ’90s, as a graduate student at Duke University, in North Carolina, she wanted to study how penises work. (Erectile tissue has pretty unusual mechanical properties, after all.) But Kelly, a lifelong animal lover, hated the idea of killing animals for her project. She nearly fainted once when attempting to demonstrate how to euthanize a frog. So her clever, if extreme solution was to temporarily move to a place (Florida) that had a bounty of big-penis roadkill (armadillos).

Animal experimentation is a weighty and contentious scientific issue, and grappling with it changed Kelly’s life. That power, along with her nerdy charm and a bunch of penis jokes, made for a moving story.

I asked Lillie how they manage to teach scientists to tell stories. It comes down to two things, he says. 1. Get them to outline a beginning, middle, and end. 2. Ask them to think about why the story matters and how it changed them.

The fact-based, disciplined nature of science can be at odds with the personal nature of storytelling. Sure, we can give you the elevator pitch of what we study, but when it comes to telling something that has a beginning, middle and end and is entertaining, a lot of us fall a little flat. So many scientific fields rely on papers, short talks at conferences and giving seminars at other universities to communicate our research within our field that it can perhaps get hard to unplug from that group and take a step back to look at the story of our work.

This project is one of many steps towards making science more approachable for us all. Maybe by effectively telling the story of our work and how we came to be scientists, we can connect with others and at least show them why it matters. Hopefully through this site my colleagues and I can put a few stories out and hone our own science narratives.

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