August 22, 2011 | 1
This is a guest post by Ben Lillie, one of the founders of The Story Collider.
The Story Collider (@story_collider on Twitter) starts with a remarkably simple question: what role has science played in your life? The wonderful thing about simple questions, of course, is how extraordinarily varied and intricate the answers can be. Once a month in Brooklyn, and elsewhere, we invite six people to tell their science stories live in front of an audience. We record them, and podcast them.
It all started in May of last year (2010). We were looking for a way to talk about the personal side of science. Not the content, but the effect it has on our lives — how it shapes who we are. We discovered a growing tradition of live storytelling in NYC (and elsewhere). People stand up in front of a microphone and an audience and tell a true, personal story. They might be funny, but they might also be touching, heartbreaking, or simply jaw-dropping.
This was exactly what we were looking for. We set up in the back room of a bar in Brooklyn, invited some friends to tell their stories, and it took off from there.
We’ve now had well over a hundred different people on our stage. They’ve come from an incredibly diverse set of backgrounds: video editors, temp workers, neuroscientists, writers, game designers, painters, lawyers, burlesque performers, and everybody in between have come to tell us their personal science story.
Here are a few examples:
Neuroscientist David Carmel struggled with just how cool his profession is when his own father had a stroke, leading to severe neurological symptoms.
Essayist Cat Bohannon had an early lesson in loss when her psychologist father brought his work to a family Dungeons and Dragons game.
Computer scientist Scott Aaronson gained acceptance of who he is, and a career, after reading about the life of Alan Turing.
Consultant Jen Fitzgerald found glory, acceptance, and later humility through mathlete competitions.
Why tell stories about science?
There are a lot of reasons to tell these stories.
First, because this is what we do — find the things that affect our lives and talk about them. Science, technology, and medicine are now the most important influences in many, if not most, people’s lives.
The second, and more immediate goal is to humanize science — not just humanizing scientists, but showing how science itself is part of us, both in the everyday experiences, and the extraordinary ones. There’s a strong tendency to think of science as “other,” this thing that doesn’t really influence who we are as people, and that we don’t need to think about, but it does.
The vast majority of our storytellers are not professional scientists, but they’ve all confronted it in some way, and it can have a profound effect. In the words of one of our storytellers, on watching a documentary about the Hubble Space Telescope: “I could not help but be in pure amazed wonder at how much beauty and unbelievable stuff I had been missing because I was so afraid to deal with reality, and I was so afraid of science and what was in front of me.”
To get to detailed discussions of climate change and evolution and moon landings, we need to talk about how those people over there, doing that thing with test tubes and lasers and petri dishes, how that affects people’s lives.
Of course, the best reason behind The Story Collider is that it’s ridiculously fun.
We’ve come a ways from the back room in Brooklyn. We’ve produced standing-room-only events in Ann Arbor, Boston, and Arlington, Va. We’ve been featured in Nature and The Wall Street Journal. We’re even moving our monthly event to a somewhat larger back room in Brooklyn.
“We,” in case you’ve been wondering, are: particle physicist-turned-writer/performer Ben Lillie, particle physicist (and still is one) Brian Wecht, and writer and editor Erin Barker. We’ve also had contributions and assistance from a huge range of incredibly talented people.
Our next event is on September 27, 8 p.m. at Union Hall. The theme will be “The Science of Wrting.”We’ll have stories from blogger Amanda Marcotte, novelist Anna North, and science writer Carl Zimmer, and three others. For that event we’ve teamed up with #NYCSciTweetUp, so come on down for the stories, and to talk science before and after.
Every week we release one story on our podcast. Our latest is from marine-biologist-turned-neuroscientist Douglas Fields, on his first moment of scientific discovery and the importance of fundamental research.
People ask where we find people to tell these stories. While we have lots of intricate, subtle ways (mostly: asking people), the majority of them come from submissions by people who’ve seen or heard about us and want to do it themselves. If you’d like to do it, send a short description to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Ben Lillie is a high-energy particle physicist who left the ivory tower for the wilds of New York’s theater district. He is co-founder and director of The Story Collider, writes and performs stories about science and being a scientist, and is a Moth StorySLAM champion. He also writes for TED.com, and likes to say that life is different now, largely because it is. Follow Ben on Twitter: @BenLillie
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