Thursday, October 8, 2009

Science writing or Story Telling?

This is an interesting article.

It is about science communication.

I have added my comments also.

“Heard any good talks?” That’s what you hear in the lobby of science meetings. The standard reply is, “I heard a great talk this afternoon—the speaker told a really neat story about ...”

And there you have it. He or she told a good story. You want to know how to interest the public in your research? Tell a good story.

As a scientist, I never quite knew this, but since becoming a filmmaker, it’s obvious.

At age thirty-eight I resigned from my tenured professorship of marine biology and entered film school at the University of Southern California. From the first day, we were confronted with one basic principle—the most powerful means of mass communication is through the telling of stories. From Greek mythology to today’s blockbuster movies, it’s clear—tells a good story and the world will listen.

(Interestingly I also did a similar thing in my life. After a Ph.D. in biochemical Genetics and also some post doctoral research work, I worked as a lecturer for a while.That was the end of the career as a true science man. Later I chose to join AIR as an officer in charge of science programmes. I became a science journalist and a science writer. There started the fun and struggle. It was real fun.)

Calling All Charlatans

It begins with a single, simple question: “What is your source of tension?” This is the heart of a good story. This question seemed trivial to me when I began film school. It didn’t register until a decade later when I finally directed my own documentary feature film, “Flock of Dodos,” about the controversy over the teaching of evolution versus intelligent design.

As I hit a brick wall in the editing and found myself sitting for days staring at a mountain of wonderful interview footage, I began flashing back to that question. Like a life preserver thrown to me in a stormy ocean, the question became my salvation.

As I dug deeper, I realized the answer itself tends to be a question. Just look at one of the simplest and most popular of fiction genres, the murder mystery—the source of tension is a question and virtually its own genre—“Who dunnit?”

Great stories and great scientific investigations are built around great questions. The more I immersed myself in this world of questions, the more I began to flash back to one of the highest compliments for a scientist—when someone says, “That scientist is asking great questions.”

And there you have it. The Rosetta Stone. The link between the science world and literature. Great stories and great scientific investigations are built around great questions.

But maybe you’ll say, “Storytelling is just for fiction.” Sorry, but that’s not true. This is a shortcoming of today’s science education—the failure to make scientists realize they are storytellers, every bit as much as novelists. They just don’t like to admit it, or really even think about it. They tend to think stories mean Star Wars and Harry Potter. The truth is, stories are as equally important in nonfiction as fiction. They are the way we understand our world.

You want the linchpin of proof of the similarity? Scientists write their papers in the same three-act structure that novelists and filmmakers use to tell their stories. The standard format of a scientific research paper consists of an Introduction (Act I, in which the question is presented); Methods and Results (Act II, in which the question is explored); and Discussion (Act III, in which the question is answered). Thesis, antithesis, synthesis—same, same.

All of which leaves me over the years answering this question to friends and journalists: “How in the world did you go all the way from scientist to filmmaker?” These days my answer is simple: “It wasn’t much of a change. The two careers involve the same basic process—storytelling.”

Randy Olson runs Prairie Starfish Productions in Los Angeles, California. Olson's book "Don't Be Such a Scientist" is published by Island Press.

(Now I add my two pence here.

When a story writer writes a story and it is really good, people say, he wrote it like as if it is a fact. Only the writer knows whether the story is a fact or fiction. When a writer like me writes an article people say as an appreciation that the piece reads like a story. What a paradox?

I learnt this in due course when I was made to write a lot. Later many readers and editors commented on my style of writing science in simple and like a story.

So, truth should be told like a story and story should be realistic.

I wrote a long article on this topic and an editor friend of mine misplaced it. I lost it.I cannot write it again. It was about the difference between writing fiction and facts. More on why people write fiction. A friend who read it commented on the work on some beautiful words.

Leave it at that. After a long time I found a piece which touches on my kind of thoughts and work. That prompted me to bring it here.)

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