This month, as part of The Story Collider's two-year anniversary, we're featuring #IAmScience—stories of people's twisted and unexpected paths to lives in science. Story Collider magazine editor Erin Barker, who definitely did not expect to be working on science stories, shares her #IAmScience story.
I learned a lot in my high school physics class. How to execute a half nelson. How to put up drywall. But not much actual physics.
My teacher—let’s call him Mr. P; not because I’m protecting his identity or anything but because he didn’t make enough of an impression on my young, developing mind for me to remember his name—was always much more interested in showing us tapes of either his son’s high school wrestling meets or his family’s appearance on home makeover show Trading Spaces. These two things—rather than any knowledge he may or may not have possessed regarding the study of matter and its motion through spacetime—appeared to be his proudest accomplishments.
After watching his sweaty, oversized son writhe around on a wrestling mat for a half hour, or he and his wife bicker over paint rollers in their neighbor’s house, I almost wished for a lesson in kinetic and potential energy. Almost.
My disinterest in science can’t really be attributed to Mr. P, although he certainly didn’t help. It was a long-lasting trend throughout my life, beginning around the first grade, when I would hide Boxcar Children mysteries under my desk to read through science class. Photosynthesis, osmosis, solar eclipses—I really just could not care less, to be honest. I was much too busy reading. I mean, I understood why I needed to know basic math. I needed it in order to count out the correct amount of money to purchase a book. But anything beyond that really did not appeal to me.
The advantage of spending little to no time doing science homework as a child was that I was a very prolific writer, of such well-regarded works as the title shown here, Tramper: The True Story, the thrilling saga of my pet gerbil's untimely demise. But on the downside, to this day I have no idea what order the nine (eight!) planets in the solar system are in, and all of my knowledge about DNA comes from that expository scene in Jurassic Park.
Of course, every now and then I’d come upon science in narrative form, and that narrative would be so compelling that I wouldn’t be able to resist learning at least enough to fully enjoy the story. These stories ranged from the paperback photosynthesis thriller Top Secret to the classic A Wrinkle in Time. Somehow I learned the process of photosynthesis and what a tesseract was without even noticing.
The same phenomenon seems to occur these days in my work with The Story Collider.
A little over a year ago TSC founder and former physicist Ben Lillie asked me to help him in his mission to assemble personal stories about science.
“This sounds great,” I said. “But you know I know nothing about science, right?”
“No, we know,” he reassured me. “That’s why we asked you.”
Ben, who once coined the term “not-at-all-a-scientist” to refer to me in a national publication, tasked me with making sure there are no lectures or research papers at Story Collider, that all the science goes down easily with a large dose of narrative. I have embraced this role. (Like Mr. P, I refuse to contribute to anyone’s scientific education.) But just like when I read Top Secretin the third grade, I’m learning a lot, despite all my best efforts.
I’ve learned about the neurological phenomenon of motion-induced blindness. I’ve learned what Boyle's law is. I’ve learned a hell of a lot more about the zebra mussel than I thought there was to know. I’ve also learned some things that frankly I can never unlearn, such as what a mucus plug is or how a guinea worm slowly destroys a human being. (Thanks for the nightmares, guys!) This information somehow seeps into my brain when I think I’m reading a love story, or listening to someone's epic life journey.
I’ve also learned that being a scientist today can sometimes be a thankless job. Like when you’re trying to clean up the Hudson River or measure aggression in rats or teach teenagers anything, or research herpes. Especially when you’re researching herpes.
I’ve learned all about this from the large portion of Story Collider storytellers who are scientists, or people working in science-related fields.
Like a lot of people who are uninterested in and/or incapable of understanding science, I am still very comforted by the fact that scientists exist, mainly because I like electricity and medicine, but also just in case of Armageddon-like circumstances. I like the confidence that comes with knowing I have Billy Bob Thornton on my side.
Story Collider scientists, you are my Billy Bob Thorntons.
(I mean that in the nicest possible way.)
That’s why this month, in our two-year anniversary show on May 22, we are honoring scientists in all their varied forms with our theme of #IAmScience—stories of wild and twisted paths to lives in science. In the run-up to the show, we’ll also be presenting the unique background stories of a number of scientists here on the magazine, starting today with Nature Chemistry Chief Editor Stuart Cantrill. We'll also be catching up with some of our most popular scientist storytellers of the past, such as Carl Zimmer and Nancy Parmalee, and the Story Collider founders themselves, physicists Ben Lillie and Brian Wecht, will present their own #IAmScience stories.
So I want to thank the scientists of The Story Collider for everything they’ve taught me, in their gentle, story-covered ways, over the past year and change I’ve spent as producer, host, and now mag editor at The Story Collider.
P.S. All the rest of you, stay tuned for our June show, when school lets out and we celebrate those of us who, like myself, were not meant to be scientists and thankfully are not, with our theme of #IAmNOTScience.
Erin Barker is the editor of Story Collider magazine, as well as co-producer and co-host of The Story Collider’s monthly stage show.