Lessons from a poop story

Lawrence David finished his story about collecting his own feces for a year straight to a boisterous round of well-deserved applause.  And in that moment – I realized how artfully science and storytelling could be merged live.  Let me back up (like a reverse wave of gastrointestinal peristalsis) to explain.

I used to do science research.  I trained gray seal pups for my master’s degree and I tagged killer whales for my doctoral research.  All along, my two favorite things were interacting with people inside and outside the lab, and sharing stories about my science work.  After wrapping up my PhD, I became a freelance journalist in Boston and I began telling stories about science on the radio and the Web.

A few years into that pursuit, I heard my first Story Collider podcast and adored the premise of telling personal stories about science live.  I learned that there had been a couple of Story Collider shows in Boston, but Brian Wecht, who’d been running them, had recently left town.  I decided to get involved.

Fast forward a year or so, and I was co-producing my first Story Collider show with Ben Lillie at the Oberon Theater in Cambridge, MA.  The theme was “It Takes Guts” and our stories ranged from the most adorably gross love story you’ll ever hear to a tale involving one man’s pursuit of a leafy beast called a phytobezoar.  Lawrence David – now an assistant professor at Duke – was first in the lineup.  He talked about a bet he’d made with himself as a graduate student at MIT where he would say yes to whatever crossed his path, no matter how bizarre.  Which was how he ended up – at his advisor’s enthusiastic suggestion – collecting his feces for an entire year to understand how the bacterial composition in his gut changed over time.

I loved the way Lawrence was able to tell a theater of 150 people about his dissertation work in a way that was rich with narrative, memory, humor, and information.  It wasn’t a PhD defense.  There were no charts or figures or bibliographies.  But it was full of science and story.  After the show, I congratulated Lawrence on what he’d done: condense years of work and thousands of data points into a 10-minute narrative arc that took the audience on a journey halfway around the world and all the way through his GI tract.

When Lawrence then thanked us for the opportunity to share his tale, it seemed to me like an ideal exchange.  We strive to build our shows out of stories like Lawrence’s – strong human narratives that are grounded in science.  In exchange, Story Collider offers a platform to empower storytellers – many of whom are scientists like Lawrence – to talk about their lives and their science in a way that can be appreciated by a general audience that’s sitting right in front of them.

For me, the occasion of a million podcast downloads is a testament to the value of that handshake, as listeners like you virtually consume and appreciate those very real stories that bloom and boom on stage.  Thanks for being a part of our journey.

Ari Daniel is The Story Collider's Boston producer, as well as an independent radio producer.

My Side of the Story

Picking which Story Collider experience to write about in celebration of our millionth download was not a difficult choice for me. To my mind, there's one Story Collider story that towers above all the others we've ever done as being the most emotionally resonant, the most narratively compelling, and by far the most personally relevant: the story my wife Rachel told about how we met.

In 2005, I broke Rachel's heart. Granted, she wasn't my wife at the time – in fact, we weren't even dating yet, and that was the source of the heartbreak – but the fact remains that I caused the person I now love most in the world an unbearable amount of pain.

And six years later The Story Collider put out a podcast about it.

The story I'm referring to is "Time and Pressure," by Rachel Bitney Wecht. There's an offhand chance that I might be biased, but I think this is the best story ever. In her (incredible) performance, Rachel describes how (adorably) she and I met, how (bravely) she asked me out, how (cruelly) I rebuffed her, and then how (finally) we started dating and ended up getting married. Rachel's performance really is wonderful, and it's a great story – our story – and I listen to it whenever I'm on the road and want to hear her voice.

But it's not really the easiest thing in the world for me to listen to. In fact, listening to it makes me kind of furious with myself, and that's because one of the central events of the story is when I told Rachel that I couldn't go out with her because I was dating someone else. In the story, Rachel describes how traumatic this was. And having heard the raw version from her in person many times over the almost eight years we've been together, let me just say that the "official" version of her story understates how hard this period in her life was. It was a horrible, horrible time for her, and I really don't know how to describe it other than complete and utter heartbreak.

And although I know I didn't do anything wrong, that if anything, I clearly did the right thing given the circumstances, that decision caused my now-wife to experience one of the worst periods in her life. For that, I will feel forever guilty, and to some extent I won't ever stop beating myself up over it.

But here's the thing. From the point of view of a Story Collider producer, I think that the fact that Rachel experienced a "darkest before the dawn" moment works like gangbusters, and makes the fact that she finally achieved her goal (i.e., me) even more meaningful. If I hadn't been a major player in the events of the narrative, this is exactly the kind of punch-you-in-the-gut stuff I'd want to see in a story. Plus, it's guaranteed to play huge in front of an audience – it's a really sympathetic moment. But as Rachel's husband, it pains me to know that I personally was the cause of one of the most painful periods in her life, even if things did work out in the end.

I love Rachel, and I love The Story Collider. But sometimes what's good for one isn't so great for the other. I guess that, when it comes to Rachel's story, I have to be happy that even though I hurt her, she was able to turn it into a freaking great story, and let us run it on the Story Collider podcast. And for that, I love her even more.

Brian Wecht is the founder and London producer of The Story Collider, as well as a theoretical physicist.

OK, what is a "Story About Science"? Scientists edition

Last week science journalist Virginia Hughes called me up to ask me a simple question: "How do we get scientists to tell good stories?" Embarrassingly, and entirely predictably, I didn't have a good answer. Fortunately, she went and wrote a great article anyway, about the need for scientists to tell stories, and how Diane Kelly prepared for hers. So that's all right then. The interview got me thinking, though: At The Story Collider, we have people tell stories about science. Stories about how science has been a part of their lives. Stories about how science has affected them and changed them. Stories both hilarious and heartbreaking about the real impact of science on daily life.

But, uh... what does that actually mean?

That is, what does a story about science look like? Is it different from any other kind of story? Is there something special about science when it's inserted into stories? We've been doing this for two and a half years now, pretty much entirely by the seat of our pants. When we started I knew we had no idea what the answers to those questions were, that we'd figure it out as we went along. Well, it's been a while, so maybe we can start to get a handle on the problem.

I'll start by just looking at some of the stories. What role does the science play in the narrative? At least, the kinds of narratives that make up Story Collider stories. And, since it was Hughes's interview that got me thinking, I'll start with something relevant to her post: What does science look like in stories told by scientists? (The majority of our stories are told by people who are not scientists, I'll look at those in future posts.) So, here are 1o stories by scientists, and some scattered thoughts on the role of the science in the story.

Also, it's not possible to do this without giving away a lot of the endings, so: massive spoiler warning. 

What it's like to be a scientist

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Doug Fields describes the pure joy of discovery -- both in the first major discovery he made as a scientist, and in a scene from his childhood watching a majestic hawk.

This is one of the classic forms of storytelling around science: the pure awe that it can evoke. What makes this a particularly personal story is that Doug describes what it feels like to be the scientist. He makes a fascinating move, one I haven't seen elsewhere: he put the childhood bit at the end. The structure is: "Here's this experience you've probably never had, but I did. It was a lot like this other experience I had, one that you can relate to." He moves from the mysterious to the familiar, rather than the other way around. It's not a technique I'd recommend often, but here it works quite well.

Of course, he does ease into it with some easily relatable bits at the beginning ("I knew what I was seeing: dinner"). You have to get the audience on your side; that's non-negotiable.

This was also an almost-explicitly political story. Doug is a section head at the NIH, and he was trying to make the case for funding fundamental research. He mentions that very briefly, for the most part letting the story speak for itself. I think that's the perfect mix. Without that one comment the point might have been lost; any more and it would have sounded preachy.

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Lou Serico wanted very much to be a scientist. But when he got a job working in a lab that researched herpes and started becoming the butt of oh-so-many jokes, he realized something was wrong. Specifically, he hated his work. A few steps later, he ended much happier -- as a forensic scientist for the City of New York.

The flip-side of Doug's story: what happens when science isn't inspiring. The story itself is a view from the inside as a bushy-tailed grad student who comes to learn the politics and pressures of research life. Science is again the motivator, but the end result is very different: "I had realized my childhood dream. And it sucked." This is a tough story to tell. Particularly in the science communication world, our instinct is to stay away from things like this -- the goal is to get people excited about science, or learn about it. We at least want failures to be as spectacular as possible, hopefully with explosions or plagiarism. Why talk about the times it's kinda meh?

I think these are actually some of the most important types of story to tell. If you only talk about the positive, people can tell you're leaving something out. They know you're painting a distorted picture. What's spectacular about this story is that it gets at the everyday mundanity of research while still having an interesting hook ("Really, people study herpes??").

From a craft point of view, this story works for two very simple reasons: Lou is incredibly funny, and he cares deeply about what he's talking about. If he cared but didn't have a sense of humor about it, that could have been awkward. If he just made herpes jokes without caring... well, it would have been like 90 percent of open-mic stand-up comedy shows -- soul destroying.

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The story that started this post: Diane Kelly always loved animals, and quickly realized she wanted to be an anatomist. But how could she do her studies when even the thought of killing an already-dead frog made her faint? Well, simple: use roadkill! Hijinks ensue.

To me, this is a classic humanizing science story: Diane works in a field that is both arcane and vilified -- animal anatomy. She makes clear why she does what she does (more on that). But, more importantly she gives a crystal clear sense that she cares about animals, and that she has all kinds of normal human emotions. The bit where she nearly faints at the dead frog is completely counter to the image of scientist as robot/psychopath. That trait isn't universal, but not uncommon (fainting, that is. Not being robot/psychopaths is pretty much universal).

The other lovely things about this story is how extraordinarily well she deals with a fairly taboo subject -- penises. There's a sense that if a subject like that comes up a scientific context it has to be discussed in the most dispassionate, clinical terms possible -- otherwise it'll descend into a puerile morass. In contrast, here Diane masterfully acknowledges and has fun with the audience's reaction, while still presenting sharp and important science.

(For more on how the story was written, and some of Diane's thoughts on it, see the wonderful post at The Last Word On Nothing.)

Science and the people around us

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Daniela Schiller never understood her father -- in particular how he, an Israeli holocaust survivor, behaved during the moment of silence on memorial day. She grew up, went to school and became a psychologist studying the neuroscience of emotions. Her growing understanding of how emotions and memory relate gives her an insight into her father.

This is pretty straightforward: studying science helped Daniela understand her own father. It's one of the promises and hopes of much research -- that understanding esoteric things about the function of neurons and whatnot will help us to understand ourselves and our lives. Of note, though, is that it only works as a story because it let her understand her father. If her research had shed light on her friend's father it would have been interesting, but not nearly as powerful.

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David Carmel grew up reading Oliver Sacks and loving the weird stories of what goes wrong in people's brains, often as the result of a stroke -- so, he became a neuroscientist. Then, his own father had a stroke, and developed bizarre symptoms David had never heard of before. That raised the question, should he approach this situation as a scientist, or as a son?

This is one of my favorite kinds: The science is an integral part of the story; it's the core of the drama. The conflict would never have existed if David wasn't a scientist, and if he didn't study neuroscience in particular. There's a wonderful moment in the middle where he explains to us what a homunculus is. It's the kind of lecturing we normally try to avoid, but it's absolutely essential to the story that the audience understands this. Because of that, it doesn't feel at all like a lecture, it feels like plot development. Ideally, every bit of science in one of our stories would be like this.

It's also beautifully crafted. I'd love to take credit for it, but the truth is that David spent hours working with Daniela Schiller, a veteran of many storytelling stages, and the inimitable Steve Zimmer, 17 time Moth StorySLAM champion. People say there's no replacement for hours of work and practice, but that's not true: Hours of work and practice with two of the world's best storytellers is a fantastic replacement.

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While reading a book by Carl Sagan, his hero, David Morgan notices a small problem with the text. So he faxes him (faxes??!!?) and is shocked to get quite a nice reply. Years later, in preparing to tell this story, he finds out the correction even made it into future editions.

There's a sense among a lot of scientists that there should be no heroes or celebrities, only the science itself. Of course, that isn't true. We all have our heroes, and the experience of meeting them -- or getting a fax from them can be life-changing, even if only because we see things in a new way. What's important about this story is how much it clearly meant to David, and how easily relatable that is to anyone listening -- the celebrity could be any musician, actor, poet (yeah, okay), or politician. That said, the fact that it is Carl Sagan gives David the chance to listen to some of the science, and show people what he cares about and why.

Adventures as a scientist

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Maiji Neimisto teaches on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a boat dedicated to protecting the environment. One day while in dock, an old man demands that she follow him. She does, and ends up discovering, and stopping, a major source of pollution.

We almost titled this one "CSI: Yonkers." It's all about how science, in this case environmental science, can lead to wild adventures. It also very nicely ties the adventure/science part, finding the illegal dumping and the testing that required, to a broader social social issue -- the iniquity of a rich town dumping waste into a poorer one.

What I find fascinating about this one, story-wise, is that it has almost exactly the structure of the archetypal hero-myth, of Joseph Campbell fame: A hero, living in the 'normal' world, is called by a stranger to adventure. Reluctantly, she agrees and sets off through various obstacles (okay, in this case it's a couple hills in Yonkers, but still). At the end of the path she's confronted with a truth about the world and herself. Getting that message back requires further adventures (for real this time!), after which she returns to a changed world.

There's a metaphorical sense in which most stories have that structure, but it's rare to see it laid out so literally. To have it happen in a science story has the myth/science nerd in me skipping-for-joy happy.

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Phoebe Cohen heads out to the wilds of Alaska to find some of the most ancient fossils ever formed. Unfortunately, nearby there is a not-at-all fossilized bear.

Even more wild adventures, this time with a bear -- the ultimate villain, as we all know. The role of the science again, is to get Phoebe out to a remote part of the world. What I love is the contrast of live bears with the fact that they're searching for the oldest fossils on Earth. They're looking for 4-billion-year-old fossils and could be killed in a few seconds. That highlights the incredible scales of deep time better than many other attempts I've seen.

Science is the MacGuffin

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Ibrahima Bah wants to study physics. The Immigration and Naturalization services wants him to be documented. This sets off a wild set of bus rides to get the stamps he needs to start grad school on time.

A MacGuffin is Alfred Hitchcock's word for the thing that keeps the story moving, but isn't what the story is about. It's the thing the protagonists wants -- in this case the ability to study physics. The story is really about the heartlessness and rigidity of bureaucracy, and what it's like to be lost in a strange land. In principle, Ibrahima could have been studying anything: business, art, medieval literature. But it's science, and that gives the audience a chance to see how and why science means so much to the people who do it. (This is a lot like David Morgan's story in that regard.)

The other aspect of this story, though, is that he is from Senegal. Problems with immigration occur in all fields, but probably far less in medieval literature than in science. One of the under-sung features of the science world is how incredibly international it is, particularly in fields like high-energy physics or astronomy where massive cross-national collaboration is the only way to get projects done. But of course, the rest of those countries don't always (well, ever) keep up, so stories like Ibrahima's are inevitable and common.

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Deborah Berebichez loved physics, but learned early on that that's not something women do. A class early on in college convinces her to go for it, but she learns it's too late, unless she can master higher math in one summer. It seems impossible, but she gives it a try, with extraordinary help from a TA who, it turns out, is paying off a debt of his own.

Again, the fact that she want to study physics in particular isn't strictly necessary for the narrative to work. This is a story about the lengths humans will go to help each other, and the reasons for that. The story itself has a bit of a "Karate Kid" feel, with Rupesh, the TA, playing the role of Mr. Miyagi. (I just spent half an hour trying to argue that the absurdities of the University system -- which is why she had to learn math in a summer -- played the role of The Cobras. But no, Ben, sometimes similarities just break down.)

Anyway, the idea that someone would want to train to be a scientist in the same way that Daniel wanted to learn Karate is pretty incredible but totally believable once you hear the story. The big emotional punch of the story, though, comes when you learn why Rupesh spent so much time helping her -- that someone had once done that for him, and he was repaying the favor.

What did we learn about how science works in stories?

I don't know. This was an exercise in thinking out loud, and I'm just getting started. Next installment I'll start looking at the stories by non-scientists, and this is just a sampling of stories by scientists, so we can come back to the others.

In the meantime, I would love to hear what other people think. We (very intentionally) don't have comments on The Story Collider, but you can tweet at me (@BenLillie) and I'll set up a post on my blog for comments. What are the big categories I missed? What seems quite wrong (or right!) about this way of organizing them? What are other great examples?

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