Thursday, September 20, 2012

Science, Storytelling

I’ll get to introducing myself and the blog, and apologizing for its name, etc. But I am going to kick off by telling about a science-themed storytelling evening I organized in Tel-Aviv.

The inspiration was The Story Collider. I have been listening to their podcast and I have enjoyed the stories. But I didn’t quite get it. Sure, there are “scientific” stories (David Dobb’s “Lost in your brain” is a favourite). But many are more like “the geologist & the bear”: I was doing science (looking at rocks in Alaska) – nothing much to tell about it – then something interesting, though mostly unrelated, happened (a bear). Well, when you are in a nature reserve in Alaska, you may happen on a bear. Why is it a science story? What’s the point?

And yet I went on and organised a science storytelling evening. The rational, frankly, was that it could be a storytelling event for people who don’t go to storytelling events. I mean, everybody loves stories, yet, I’ve never even considered going to an annual storytelling festival held near Tel-Aviv. The re-runs from this festival, broadcast in wee hours, tend to have 3 grey-haired men with stories of glorious olden-times. Uncool.

Stories about science, on the other hand, that could be cool. That could bring in the hipster-ish geeks.
It turned out to be more complicated. The event was part of a meeting of Skeptics in the Pub Tel-Aviv. The attendance was lower than the usual and of those who did come many were new. Apparently people who think science stories are cool are not quite the normal SitP crowd.
People (including, to my horror!, the storytellers) kept referring to the stories as “talks”. Maybe they are used to the concept of a talk, what it is, what it is about. Stories are less obvious. This is a surprise, given that maxim that stories are somehow part of being human. It remains a point to explore.

My own story was an old family story about a scientist who fell in love with my grandmother. People said it was a good story about how even scientists can do crazy things out of love. I never knew that was what my story was about! Partly because - well, of course scientists would act crazy for love. What did you think they were, robots?

Which made me realise one type of value science stories have.

There is an image of scientists as robots, or Spocks. But world-class physicists do get madly in love. And there is an image of scientists as pale, short-sighted nerds in white coats, but stories show how science could be a plain, old-fashioned adventure involving bears (or sharks). Science is thought of as this cold, inhuman process, but sometimes the scientific becomes deeply personal.

I suspect a major goal of the science communication project, both the official version and the grassroots, fandom version, is to re-brand science. Re-negotiate what it means to be a scientist or a person interested in science. Science storytelling is part of that.


  1. You totally convinced me, I'd definitely come if I were around!
    Only that, I'm not sure this would change the unfortunate robotic perception of the scientist, since the event would be an internal sciency event, and scientist already know they are not robots...

    sounds fun anyway :)

    1. Yes, you've got a point. There are several reasons/rationalizations to be made about that (for instance: an event like that could attract people "from outside"). But these activities do tend to be inward-looking in practice, and probably need to be understanding in terms of identity construction/community building. Someone has to write about that! :-)