Science, Storytelling and Scientific Storytelling

Humans are hard-wired to tell stories. We’re all literary artists in one way or another, using our individual linguistic capabilities to weave interesting stories about our lives – in an attempt to place more significance on who we are as people. Storytelling is perhaps the simplest and most engaging form of “imaginative activity”, holding the power to incite the deepest of human emotions.

Science on the other hand, is one of the most powerful tools that has the ability to change the way humans think and the decisions they take for themselves and their societies. Science holds the power to heal. Consequently, scientific knowledge is becoming increasingly important with each passing day and how scientists convey what they learn has the potential to have profound effects on humanity as a whole.

The scientific knowledge that we gather every day has to be able to inspire action, especially by our leaders and people who govern us. And this need to inspire action based on hard facts and figures obtained in research can only be ignited by the activity humans have participated in for generations: storytelling. According to Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, by crafting a story that we are passionate to tell because it serves a real purpose, our stories will have a bigger impact on the world. And there are very few things in this world that are as passionate as scientists giddy from successful results they want to share. However, even in the presence of fervent passion for one’s research, proper scientific storytelling would only be effective when scientists want to convey complex information with not the motive to just throw out everything they know, but the desire to provoke thoughts and to inform the audience with an outward focus.

Scientific storytelling could transfer a lot of valuable information and telling a story out of scientific research isn’t all that remote and difficult as one would normally imagine. Every discovery and every research that was ever born had a story to tell. Humans are also constantly stitching narratives in their head – about how their favourite shirt didn’t fit, how the tomatoes at the supermarket were all rotten and how the glimmer in their lover’s eyes made their day – in fact so much, that almost 65% of all our conversations are personal anecdotes and gossip.

Research shows that although our brains are not constructed to retain facts and figures for a long time, they are incredibly good at perceiving, understanding and remembering stories. Our brains involve themselves when telling or listening to a story – more than one sensory region is activated during a storytelling activity. Storytelling stirs a significant number of emotions and plays with human psychology, thereby engaging more audience. Storytelling is also the only thing that works in order to affect a change in belief and behaviour in the masses. Together, Science and Storytelling are almost like a power couple. An amalgamation of narrative and research data could stimulate the audience not only emotionally, but also intellectually. Subsequently, such a stimulation would allow the story to stay with its listeners for days.

Storytelling has proven to be effective in marketing and large businesses, giving us no reason to believe that it would not work in science. In a 2014 paper, Roald Hoffman, Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters (emeritus) at Cornell University, wrote that because narrative is not reducible to mathematics, it is not given its due in [our] scientific world…but science does depend on compelling narratives and that science has stories to tell.

Perhaps the quantification of scientific ideas as well the idea that science needs to be ‘dumbed down’ for it to be communicated has vanquished the prose in science. But it is never too late to reinforce the importance of narratives that is found in science. Humans are already manufactured to tell stories and so, all that remains to be done is to spur a willingness to write and narrate a story from what scientists learn. Storytelling has a considerable scientific component; conversely, embracing scientific storytelling could only prove to be the most effective form of science communication.

Ushashi Basu

Featured Photograph (on homepage) by: Anusha Das

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Review: Turtles All The Way Down

I read this book much later than I was supposed to, especially since I call myself a fan of the Green Brothers. But better late than never right?!

John Green takes to the paper to voice the suffering of Aza Holmes, a sixteen year old doing homework, reading college pamphlets and hanging out with her best friend, but writhing in the pain of her crippling anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Oh, and through it all, she’s trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of local billionaire Russel Pickett.

But Aza is not the only one fighting this war with her all-consuming thoughts. In his most personal book yet, Green opens up about his struggles with anxiety and emphasises on the importance of having an open conversation about mental health with people around us. Through the voice inside Aza’s head, Green aims to give his readers a vivid idea of what it’s like inside the head of a person stuck and spiraling in their own thoughts, reminding us sometimes, it is just difficult. That’s all.

Turtles All The Way down is pain-laden and although it contains a fair share of Shakespearean teenagers talking about the universe, the insignificance of humanity and what it means to be human like all of Green’s previous novels, this is one book that would resonate the most with its readers, irrespective of age. Using simple yet eloquent language, John Green takes the book beyond its label of ‘young adult literature’, appealing to adults as well. Green’s ability to vocalise the millennial epidemic of poor mental health (which is not a joke by the way) is truly commendable and in my (not-so-important) opinion, what makes him so celebrated amongst his fans.

In spite of the slow start – which was perhaps necessary to build-up to the emotional ending – John Green delivers a heart wrenching tale that is sure to stay with readers for a long time.

To Science or Not To Science

In 1993, the Royal National Theatre in London opened Arcadia, a play by playwright Tom Stoppard, and highly praised by critics as one of the finest plays written by a contemporary playwright. Arcadia approaches a plethora of themes and subjects, notable ones being thermodynamics, computer algorithms and fractals – subjects primarily concerned with science and mathematics. The play also aims to explore the relationships between the past and the present, order and disorder and certainty and uncertainty, and in doing so, depicts how modes of interpretation change through time and amongst people. In 2006, Arcadia was declared by the Royal Institute of Great Britain as the greatest works of science fiction ever created.

It is acclaimed plays like Arcadia and A Disappearing Number – the latter a 2007 play written and directed by Simon McBurney that inquired into the beauty of mathematics and how it holds within its clutches, human destinies – that allow us to observe and talk about the nature of science communication through theatre and the transfer of ideas between these two fields.

Science and theatre are more entwined with one another than we can perceive. Their meeting ground may not be as extensive as the one in between science and poetry, but is nonetheless, present. Perhaps the most prominent of these similarities is the reliance of the both of them on the craft of interpretation. While science, as we’re all aware of, depends on the interpretation of data obtained from experiments, theatre plays often rely on interpretation of texts, books, movies and other plays. Scientific discoveries and theatre are open to interpretation by not only their creators, but also their, albeit vastly different, audiences. And it is within and through this interpretation that creativity flourishes. Scientists and playwrights alike, are allowed to explore the limits of their imagination with the ‘data’ they possess before they put the ingenious ideas down on paper. Furthermore, science, in all its forms of depiction – for example, posters and thesis defences – is theatrical in many ways. One cannot deny that while presenting his or her work of several arduous years, a scientist expresses passion and eloquence similar to that of a theatre actor.

But common ground aside, how much closer can we possibly bring science and theatre? Can we exploit theatrical devices and theatre to actually communicate science? In a 2010 critique in The Guardian, Alexis Soloski argued and concluded that science plus theatre equalled poor plays [1] and that often, these plays were a drag to watch, as a result of the dumbing down of scientific prose for easier understanding of the audience. It may be possible, that, in an attempt to make sure the audience can keep up with difficult scientific ideas, the beauty of scientific prose is lost and in turn, the essence of the play itself.

However, there exist not a few, but several great plays that blend science into themselves. Some eminent and renowned ones include George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Bertolt Bertrandt’s The Life Of Galileo (1937) and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998). The present-day relevance of The Doctor’s Dilemma allows for it to be re-staged again and again. Moreover, foundations such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation encourage leading playwrights to explore scientific themes and support theatres that commission, develop and promote plays with high quality scientific content[2]. The Arts Catalyst, based in Kings Cross London, is a non-profit contemporary arts organisation that commissions and produces transdisciplinary art and research[3] and, in the words of co-founder Nicola Triscott, aims to create more symbiotic relationships between the two fields[4]. The Nexus Theatre Company, established as recently as 2017, aspires to make new scientific ideas and information accessible to all[5].

From a broader perspective then, it seems as though there are and have been significant endeavours towards uniting science and theatre and increasing engagement of scientists in theatre. But before a more fluid relationship is established between science and theatre, several questions need to be addressed, the most important of them being “How much science/S.T.E.M. does a play have to contain before it becomes more about questioning the outreach and life-altering effects of science?” Reflecting on the scientific plays mentioned before, it is not difficult to observe a pattern – Life Of Galileo is not only about Galileo Galilei and his scientific discoveries, but also about the dogmatism of the Catholic Church prevalent in the 17th century and its blatant conflict with scientific theory; The Doctor’s Dilemma discusses the constraints of limited medical resources and the complex ethical questions doctors are faced with on a fairly regular basis; Copenhagen questions, through the meeting of Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941, the ideas of nuclear power and the motives behind constructing an atomic bomb. These plays contain as much scientific elements as they do the social and economic implications of scientific development.

The question of how much science one can possibly put into a 120-minute play also presents a larger question – Is the amalgamation of science with any form of art about communicating science through visually-appealing and user-friendly modes or is it inclined towards sparking a conversation regarding the effects of scientific advancements on humanity and its myriad cultures?

The answers to these questions cannot be procured objectively or immediately, and there isn’t one concrete answer. Perhaps the only way we will ever know if science will go on to become a recurring theme in theatre and other manifestations of art is through the one true procedure: experimentation.

Ushashi Basu

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