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Beauty,Spring 2005 Second Web Papers On Serendip

Storytelling and Science

Muska N

I used to consider myself the smartest girl in kindergarten, not only because I knew the entire alphabet by heart, but also because I could answer any scientific question on earth. If I overheard some poor classmate of mine asking the teacher a question like "Why is the grass green?" I would chime in with "Because it's my favorite color." If someone else asked "Where does rain come from?" I would say "The sky, duh!" These sorts of egotistical, matter-of-fact answers satisfied me perfectly, and everyone else's confusion as to how the world worked irritated me. Didn't they realize that the sky was blue because it matched my lunchbox? Couldn't they understand that snow fell because I liked to go sledding? And thunder and lightening were byproducts of G-d punishing my mom for not buying me a new Barbie. These were the simple stories I told myself to explain the world around me, and no one could convince me that I didn't have a story to explain any scientific phenomenon on earth. I was the smartest girl in kindergarten, after all.

As my six-year-old wisdom demonstrated, storytelling is not dead in the science world. In fact, according to chemist Roald Hoffman, storytelling is the entire basis of scientific understanding and communication. "Everywhere one looks in science," Hoffman states, "there are stories." The beauty in telling a scientific story is precisely the way in which a story simplifies a chaotic abstraction into a neat and organized formula. Hoffman states that "narrative becomes the substitute for soaring simplicity in operative aesthetic structures." However, these stories are not actually simple, but rather give the appearance of simplicity. There is a deceiving quality among the scientific theories, formulas and facts that give the feeling of orderliness, where really there is only chaos translated into something more approachable to the human mind—such as narratives with a beginning, middle and an end.

Beauty, in science, is therefore much the same as beauty in any other area of life. There is an appeal to that which seems simple and natural, but which is actually a product of hard labor. Hoffman stated "Beauty is created out of the labor of human hands and minds" however the stories which are used to explain science do not show any evidence of this "hard labor." In fact, science is described in the most minimalist means of explanation because it would be too overwhelming to focus on how each individual scientific discovery led to the scientific discovery of something more complex. Therefore, certain scientific theories and facts must be assumed as a given prior to even starting a new scientific discovery. In other words, each story is so intricately intertwined with another story, that the simplicity of a scientific equation or formula is appealing in the deception that it is not a product of numerous other research and labor.

Therefore, there is a certain level of dishonesty in the beauty that results from storytelling—whether it is in science or in the humanities. The fiction in both of these fields is in the presumptions that the world can be simplified at all. For example, there is a great deal of storytelling involved in a theatre production of a play. If while you are watching the play you are constantly reminded that the story being presented is a fictional tale involving characters who never existed and events that never actually happened, then the beauty of the story is lost entirely. There are many things that could contribute to the audience's inability to dispel reality, such as the quality of the writing, the effectiveness of the production and the talent of the actor. However, the common theme throughout these realizations is that the play is not real and instead is a creation of many other peoples' efforts. On the other hand, when going to a spectacular theatre production of a play, the audience loses themselves in the storyline and forgets that the actors are not real characters. The audience forgets that there is a playwright, director, manager, etc and all that matters is the beauty of the story. Another example, which I once posted on the board, is from a book by Colette Dowling. In this excerpt Colette is describing her experience watching a ballet dancer on stage. Doling states the following:

"There my eyes would widen as I beheld a young dancer pursuing excellence, pushing her body up against the fierce, triumphant music of Stravinsky. Somehow I preferred to think of the dancer as magical. I could not reconcile the glory of her performance with the sweat dripping from her body or the contortions of her face when, during a pause in the dance, her back to the audience, I saw her gasp for air as recklessly and as hideously as some old flatfish cast up on the sand. Grounded, she seemed; vulnerable, exhausted by the effort of having fully extended herself. I did not want to see the connection between the magnificence of her art and the torturously hard work she had to do in order to accomplish it."

It is the simple appearance of the ballet dance that is perceived as beautiful, not the strenuous work involved in the bodily movements.

The same can be said about beauty in a scientific story. Last week Kara posted a statement in which she said the following:

"Equations for me sort of embody what beauty really is. You look at an equation, and its a summary of a very complicated idea compacted so that your mind can grasp it all at once....the other truly beautiful thing about equations [is] that they can summarize a relationship between two otherwise unconnected thing."

Within the equation is a scientific story that, in reality, is based on numerous research and trial-and-error. However, the moment one looks at the equation, the story appears simple and can easily summarize complex ideas. The labor is not evident, only the equation. Therefore, the medium of storytelling is necessary for both the know-it-all kindergarten student and the world-renowned chemist, because storytelling allows us to simplify the complexities of the world into a familiar narrative of conflict and resolution. The common theme between the humanist perspective on beauty and the scientific perspective on beauty is the deceptive quality of simplicity.

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