Science Through Storytelling

Tell me a story.

By | December 6, 2004

Tell me a story. Tell me a story and you are sharing with me a part of yourself, an experience enlivened by your unique perspective. Tell me a story and you are partaking in humankind's most enduring pastime: conveying not just factual information but also the circumstances under which it was gained and the inspiration that gave it life.

Science often misses out on the non-factual component. The peer-reviewed literature is, appropriately, shorn of anecdote and circumstance. It provides the essential mine of information on which other studies can build. But the peer-reviewed literature shouldn't be the only way to record science. What happens at lab benches under the hands and in the minds of researchers, each one of whom brings different perspectives, insights, and motivations is much more textured and complex. The day-by-day struggle for knowledge needs to be more widely studied and appreciated. It is our culture and our heritage.

Biographies and especially autobiographies get to the heart of that culture. James Watson provided the blueprint with a masterful transformation of a two-page letter in Nature into a warts-and-all account of a legendary discovery. While popular-science books abound, there still aren't nearly enough books in The Double Helix mode.1

Lately we've seen a welcome addition to the science storytelling movement. Thanks to new technology and the increasing commoditization of digital storage, we can capture and preserve hour upon hour of stories from our greatest scientists. These are of intense interest to historians and those who wish to better their scientific acumen.

In this issue of The Scientist, Rochelle Easton Esposito, a yeast geneticist from the University of Chicago, describes an ambitious project to capture what she calls the intellectual heritage of genetics (see p. 24). Published by the Genetics Society of America (GSA), Conversations in Genetics2 currently comprises 10 interviews with scientists, conducted by peers. Examples to whet the appetite: Francois Jacob interviewed by Lucy Shapiro, Edward B. Lewis interviewed by Elliot Meyerowitz, and Ira Herskowitz interviewed by Jasper Rine.

Tamara Tracz directs and produces videos for an online archive called Peoples Archive.3 This project, which has ties with our sister company BioMed Central, has stored hours of discussion from such individuals as Sydney Brenner, John Maynard Smith, and Francis Crick, along with physicists and other significant individuals outside of science. These sessions, which range in length from three hours to 15, have been divided and indexed into thousands of stories. Individuals discuss discoveries, inspirations, motivations, and outside interests. The project provides links between similarly themed segments and contains searchable transcripts inviting various modes of exploration.

While modern technology is a driver of Conversations in Genetics and Peoples Archive, someone else did get there first. Irwin Herskowitz, Ira's father and Professor Emeritus, Hunter College, City University of New York, was involved in creating a series of videos in the 1950s and 1960s for McGraw Hill in an effort to better use television as a teaching tool. The 48 lectures from 15 renowned scientists include a young Jim Watson, sneaker-clad and open-shirted, as well as G.W. Beadle, and H.J. Muller giving 30-minute lectures on the cutting-edge topics of the day. The GSA is converting these videos to DVD.4

As our scientific oral history takes its rightful place in eternal digital preservation, such collections will become invaluable as a teaching tool, irreplaceable as a resource for historians, and inspirational for all of us interested in research.

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