Story Collider: Where Science is a Story Well Told

New York Times (New York, NY), January 31, 2012




I’ve often argued that the world would be better off if people, from an early age, absorbed science not as a set of facts (sadly the state of science education today), but as a story — full of vexing questions, conflict, dead ends, insights and the occasional thrilling leap.

That’s why I love Story Collider, a storytelling project, both onstage and online, in which scientists and people affected by science recount short, often funny, sometimes disturbing experiences, mostly in front of audiences, cabaret-style. These events are produced with Science & the City, a program of the New York Academy of Sciences.

For a taste, here’s Deborah Berebichez, the first Mexican woman to graduate with a physics Ph.D. from Stanford University, who was told she couldn’t study physics because it wasn’t for girls — until she got assistance for an unexpected reason.

The next round is this Thursday night at 92Y Tribeca in lower Manhattan, and the subject is stories about or by science teachers. In my experience, all it takes is one inspiring teacher to nudge students toward a world-improving trajectory.

The founders of this performance series are two scientists with a deep interest in writing and acting out: Ben Lillie, a lapsed particle physicist and writer for the organization behind the TED talks, and Brian Wecht, a postdoctoral researcher in particle physics and string theory who is also half of a rather wild duo called Ninja Sex Party. (Times rules proscribe me from linking to their videos, so simply Google for the name if you dare).

Wecht said, “The first big aha moment I had while working on Story Collider was realizing that fundamentally there isn’t any difference between science stories and other stories. They need a beginning, a middle, and an end and the person telling the story needs to change, to be affected by what happened. All the techniques we’d learned from studying other kinds of stories apply to science stories. It’s a bit embarrassing that that was a realization, since it was also part of the point we were trying to make.”

“The second aha was realizing that we needed to bring in our friend Erin Barker, who is not only a brilliant writer but has no formal science background. Two physicists running a show might seem like a good idea (to someone, somewhere), but she’s been crucial in making the Story Collider something that is talking to everyone, and not just those already interested in science.”

Barker said: “I think personally my biggest aha moment was just realizing the role of the show for people like me who are, well, not scientists. Science to me had always just been that one boring class that I skipped three days out of the week in college. And, sure, maybe it is that. Let’s not kid ourselves here. But thinking about it through the frame of storytelling, science can also be something that enables us to change our lives, leads us to fall in love, or helps us define who he we are. And there’s something pretty incredible about that. The more of these stories that Ben and I heard, the more we realized that The Story Collider’s role is to make science personal for our audience, in a time when a lot of people feel disconnected from it.”


Subjects Covered: education

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