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Scientific Storytelling

Scientific Storytelling

By Melissa Pandika


For those who have nightmares about high school physics class, the Story Collider, a New York-based storytelling project, makes science touching, riveting and even downright hilarious.

By Melissa Pandika

When he heard writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks’ stories about how damage to the brain could warp perception, making one man mistake his wife for a hat and another think the arm attached to his body wasn’t really his, David Carmel was fascinated — so much so that he decided to become a neuroscientist. Then, his own father had a stroke and suffered symptoms Carmel had never seen before, and Carmel found himself in his own story, torn between being a scientist and a son.

It’s the makings of a captivating personal story.

Despite what we may recall about trudging through memorization and diagrams in high school, science isn’t all just facts and figures. It’s also brimming with puzzling questions, personal journeys, conflict, frustration and the occasional, exhilarating breakthrough.

There’s a sense that science is this big complicated thing that only ‘smart’ people can understand…

Which is why physicists Ben Lillie and Brian Wecht founded the Story Collider, a New York City-based storytelling project that features scientists and others going on stage to recount their personal encounters with science, which are recorded and podcast. Each show consists of five 15-minute stories centered around a common theme. The next show, entitled “Charting New Territory,” takes place on January 28 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lillie and Wecht are still putting the lineup together, but it includes physical cosmologist Margaret Geller telling the story of starting her career as one of the first women at Princeton.

Audience facing camera watching speaker on stage

Audience members sitting at a scientific storytelling event

Source Bryan Derballa

But why tell stories about science? For one, sharing personal stories can help break down the “wall of scariness” that surrounds science at a time when it affects our lives more than ever. “There’s a sense that it’s this big complicated thing that only ‘smart’ people can understand,” Lillie said. But we all need to think about global warming, stem cell biology and planetary exploration. 

“Of course, the other reason to tell [stories about science] is that they’re damn entertaining,” Lillie said.

Anyone can submit story ideas through the Story Collider website. After making their selections, the producers work with the performers to shape and rehearse their stories.

Most of them are funny, like the story about how former Scientific American editor John Rennie was almost castrated by a lab rat. Some are disturbing, like biologist Danielle Lee’s experience of subtle sexism and racism as a woman of color in science.

One of Lillie’s all-time favorites? David Carmel’s story we began with above, and have included here below. So cozy up with some headphones and a beer. You don’t want to play hooky during these science lectures.

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