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The science of storytelling

Susan Notes:

Think about this: Nobel laureate scientists see the importance of telling one's story. Why can't Standardistos grasp this?

posted by Elie Dolgin

Science is a story -- a story about ideas, but also a story about the remarkable people who devote their lives to unraveling the wonders of nature. Scientists themselves, however, rarely have a vessel to impart their personal wisdoms since the main outlet for scientific research -- peer-reviewed literature -- is typically devoid of narrative.

Not so last Friday (June 12) night at the World Science Festival in New York City. Two Nobel Laureates, two neurobiologists, and two writers poured their hearts out to a packed room of showgoers at an event called Matter: Stories of Atoms and Eves, which was sponsored by The Moth, a nonprofit group that hosts storytelling slams.

In keeping with The Moth's traditions, each story of the event had to be true, short, and told without notes. "It was quite the effort trying to get a 40 minute presentation into 10 minutes," Irene Pepperberg, who studies animal cognition at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, told The Scientist. Pepperberg recounted the unique difficulties and excitement of working with her research subject and "colleague," Alex the African Grey parrot. After Alex's death in 2007, "I realized I'd lost the most important being in my life for the last thirty years," she told the rapt audience at the Players Club, a 270-person theater housed in the wood-paneled former dining room of a mansion on Gramercy Park.

Fellow bird biologist Erich Jarvis of Duke University also related the loss of a loved one -- his estranged father, who lived in caves in upstate New York and at the northern tip of Manhattan for six years as an eccentric way to understand how humans invented modern civilization, language, and religion. Jarvis' father was killed as part of a gang initiation twenty years ago at the age of 44, and was the inspiration for the book The Caveman's Valentine by the novelist George Dawes Green, who founded The Moth in 1997.

At the time of his father's death, Jarvis was a first-year molecular neurobiology graduate student at Rockefeller University working feverishly to prove that he wasn't "a failure" like his dad, spending days on end in his own self-described cave -- the laboratory. Jarvis himself turned 44 a few months ago -- a personal milestone because "I never knew if I was going to make it," he said, holding back tears. "Maybe I am like my father to a certain degree where I have one foot on the grid and one foot off the grid."

"I can tell the story with a straight face to an individual such as yourself, but getting up there in public and telling a whole crowd I felt very different," Jarvis told The Scientist. "It was much more of a challenge than I expected."

"All this time, I didn't realize how much [my father's death] had affected me," he continued. "I had to think really hard about how his life has affected my science."

The evening's most notable biologist was British biochemist Paul Nurse, former chief executive of Cancer Research UK and now president of Rockefeller University in New York City. Nurse, recounted a gripping personal tale of hereditary discovery, which he described as "quite the Dickensian novel." (Spoiler alert! For the full story, watch the 10-minute video by going to the url below)

As a boy, Nurse always felt "a little bit different" from the rest of his family. His parents and siblings all left school at age 15 while he excelled at academics and pursued higher education. In his 30s, Nurse's mother confided in him that both she and Nurse's father were "illegitimate" -- born out of wedlock to unknown fathers. A shocking revelation, but it didn't really explain why he was the oddball in the family.

Glossing over his career, which included being knighted in 1999 and winning the 2001 Nobel Prize for discovering key cell cycle regulators, Nurse fast-forwarded to two years ago when he was rejected for a US Green Card. "I know Homeland Security has high standards," Nurse said, wryly, "but, I mean, this did seem more than a bit ridiculous." It turned out he had submitted a type of birth certificate that did not list his parents' names. He sent away for a more complete birth record, which arrived with the name of his "sister" in place of his mother's, and a blank where his father's should have been. Nurse learned at the age of 58 that he too was illegitimate.

"The final irony here really," he said, "is I'm not a bad geneticist, and my rather simple family kept my own genetic secret for over half a century."

The evening's host, Andy Borowitz, a comedian and the only non-scientifically trained storyteller on the panel, related his "brush with science" -- medical complications he suffered from a twisted colon. Science writer Paul Hoffman also spoke about his contentious and competitive relationship with his literature professor father, and Leon Lederman, the 86-year-old Fermi Lab particle physicist, closed the show, recounting a brief graduate school encounter with Albert Einstein. In less than a minute, Einstein dismissed Lederman's investigation into subatomic particles as a waste of time. (In 1988, Lederman won the Nobel Prize for discovering the muon neutrino.)

"It's not every night that we have two Nobel Laureates," Lea Thau, The Moth's executive and creative director, told The Scientist. "I was extremely moved by the evening. When you have someone who's contributed as much to the world as these people have, it adds a bit of gravitas, and we're all in awe. But the thing I love about story telling is that it levels the playing field."

— Elie Dolgin
The Scientist Blog



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