Narratives of Science

author: Robert Kanigel, Writing and Humanistic Studies, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Thomas Levenson, Writing and Humanistic Studies, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Alan Lightman, Writing and Humanistic Studies, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: June 10, 2010,   recorded: May 2005,   views: 3081
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Description

Robert Kanigel poses the central question of this panel: “The storytelling express is leaving the station. Do we want to jump aboard, or under some circumstances, stay where we are?” Science writing has matured as a discipline and genre, and for many writers, this means telling a story with what Kanigel describes as “a narrative arc: a cannon propelling you through a text, because of readers’ eagerness to know what’s happening next.” This implies some kind of linear movement, whether the writer focuses on “the smallest atomic unit” or a larger canvas. But Kanigel wonders if “there are circumstances when we don’t want stories.”

Thomas Levenson responds, “You can go a long way down the path of understanding science as a human activity without getting a story.” He offers the example of a writer who keeps a diary of a year spent in a laboratory -- what Levenson describes as “science travelogues.” But from his early experiences as a journalist, Levenson has found that “Science produces a certain kind of knowledge, but the activity of science takes shape within and is shaped by the world beyond science.” So he brings an historical, interpretative method to bear on his subjects, including Einstein. Says Levenson, “You get to make meaning out of the story you want rather than asking people to extract meaning out of a happenstance of facts.”

Alan Lightman ponders the role of science in novels, theatre and film. He offers several examples of “gripping and suspenseful” discussions of science within narratives, such as Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient and Michael Frayn’s play, Copenhagen. These authors avoid the didactic with a “motor that drives us through discussion.” But the very popular genre of science biography proves trickier to propel successfully. “In science, it’s more of a challenge to intertwine work with life because life deals with the inanimate,” says Lightman.

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