Home | Calendar | About | Getting Involved | Groups | Initiatives

2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
October 8, 2004

Science as Story:
Re-reading the Fairy Tale

Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Louis Begley, "Ariadne's Own Story." The New York Review of Books (September 23, 2004):

[Ariadne, sad because she knows the story of her family's future, goes distraught to her father, who comforts her and says,]
"What is to come...cannot change...But what will come to pass is not what [mortals] will know or remember. Why is that, Father?...How can that which has happened be undone? My beloved child, Minos answered, the past is only what the poets tell us....for each event that was they will, in each generation, invent ten that weren't, and each generation will add its numberless inventions. Much later, men even more inconsequential, called historians, will keep rewriting the past until fables take its place..."

Here's one attempt to re-write THAT story:
What is to come can change.
And the stories we tell can contribute to that alteration.

The "take-home lesson" of the "new story":
"fairy tales" trace arenas into which science can step next...
the "fictions" that invite the "fact-finding" of scientific observation...

Once upon a time...

there was a storytelling culture,
there was a science classroom,
and there was a little girl who...

Grew up.
Learned to think of science differently.
And is now re-thinking the extent of that "difference."

A Tale Re-Told in Several Acts
I. Being Left Out of the Story of Science
II. Being Invited Into Retelling the Story (of Scientific Fictions->Facts->Acts)
III. Watching Others Do it ( Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey, David Bohm and Rebecca Goldstein...)

Act I: The Conservative Work of Storytelling

The competitive storytelling culture of the South

The Frenches of Woodstock, Virginia An Account of Six Generations: Our Relatives, Our Enterprises, and Our Memories.
Ed. Anne French Dalke, Christopher Edward French and Carolyn French Long. Fredericksburg, Virginia: Self Published, 1997.

Scene I: [My father's reconciliation:] "I was struggling with how we would handle the conflicts in the retellings of some of the stories by different family members. My nephew Billy...said, 'Why worry about it? That is the way the Bible was written. It will make the stories more interesting.'"

Scene II: Uncle Millson's tantrum: "Just because it's in a book, doesn't make it TRUE!"

Critical Commentary:
It is Possible (and More Interesting) to have Multiple Conflicting Accounts (of the Same Events) in Play Simultaneously. Recording Them Does Not Equal Truth (i.e., They Conflict with One Another, and Fail to Function as an Accurate Record of What Was).

This is the position of a humanist, and what (I heard) Paula mean when she said, several weeks ago, that "'all stories are not science.' Some are fairy tales, and there are 'no best fairy tales'; there are many more possible stories in the humanities than in science."

ContraAct: The BORING Work of Science

More on the Two Cultures:"Science IS Story"-- An Exchange Involving a Social Scientist, A Humanist, and a Scientist:

"I was a very curious child, but I was never EVER interested in any of my science classes. None of them gave any space to my curiosity about the nature of the world, my desire to explore how and why things worked the way they did. I was repeatedly asked to reproduce experiments that had been run (presumably successfully) by scientists in the past. They always failed; I never knew why, never knew how--was never helped--to figure out why. By high school, I had become a pronounced 'science-phobe': not only dis-interested in, but very much afraid of science, a realm where a certain sort of expertise reigned, and where I had no place."

Critical Commentary on the ContraStory: Insistance on a Single Right Account Reduces the Natural Desire of a Curious Child To Explore (=To Discover? To Write an Alternative Story?)

Act II: Interdisciplinary Teaching @ Bryn Mawr

More on the Two Cultures, continued:

"This started to change about seven years ago, when I began hanging out with our bi-college colleagues in the sciences ( I first co-taught a gender studies course w/ Kaye Edwards, a developmental biologist at Haverford, in 1997; my science education picked up steam as I co-taught a sequence of BMC College Seminars, first with Liz McCormack in Physics, then with Peggy Hollyday and Paul Grobstein in Biology). With some labor, and a lot of curiosity and questioning, I found that the notion of "science as story" a very productive one for my own re-education into science matters. It invited me to participate in and contribute to that realm, to think about myself as a scientist, to think of what I knew experimentally and experientially as valid contributions to the evolving account about the nature of the world. I didn't have to be "right": I just had to contribute what I knew to the common sandpile, knowing that whatever I said was correctible by others who knew other things, and that the process was an unending one. Seems to me that that story, about 'science as story in the real world,' might...have some usefulness...?"

Act III: The Shape Taken by My Contributions to the Common Sandpile/Shared Story:

Questions, Intuitions, Revisions: Telling and Re-Telling Stories About Ourselves in the World
"...co-designed by faculty members in English and Biology to explore the variety of ways
in which we are all continually reaching for new understandings."

From the syllabus:
"Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world." Albert Einstein, The Evolution of Physics (1938)

The stories we tell ourselves...become invisible enclosures. Rooms with no air. One must open the window to see further, the door to possibility.... we are immersed in an old story and cannot see what is happening....
Susan Griffin. A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War (1992)

"I wrote the story first. It was a true story. But it seemed too simple. So then I wrote the counter narrative: a second voice, second thoughts." Susan Griffin. Reading at Bryn Mawr (1999)

The next, more discliplinarily specific course, claimed explictly that science WAS story:

The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories: Exploring the Significance of Diversity

Name: Paul Grobstein
Subject: science and story
Date: 2004-01-20 19:53:52
Message Id: 7649
....Lots to talk more about (and looking forward to a semester of doing it) but one issue from this afternoon sticks in my mind particularly: the idea that "science" is different from "story", and is in fact something that one can appeal to to test the "validity" or "correctness" of a story.

I think that's lots of peoples' story of the relation between science and story, but its not what I was trying to convey in my story this afternoon. What I wanted to convey is the idea that science IS story, in the sense that it is nothing more (and nothing less) than something one makes up to make sense of observations. And then tests/revises (inevitably) by making additional observations.

Am I SERIOUS about this? As a scientist? Yep. Moreover, I think the story that science is a story is itself a GOOD story ("good" in terms we need to talk more about; perhaps, for the moment, "has a long lifetime"?)....

Name: Anne Dalke
Subject: Storytelling IS Science
Date: 2004-01-21 20:59:11
Message Id: 7704

Yes, science IS story and (this will sound predictable, but I'll say it anyway): storytelling (well done) IS science. That is to say: if we acknowledge that every account is temporary (as we are temporary), that every account is unfinished (as we are unfinished), then all storytelling (like all living) is an endless predicting and testing and revising, as we ask ourselves repeatedly how useful our current accounts are for making sense of what we (and others) are observing and experiencing. I'm convinced that this process--Quakers call it "continuing revelation"--can happen in religion as well as in science.

And yes, one measure of a "good story" is that it has "a long lifetime"; but a better story does something else: it generates further stories. I got this idea from Michael Tratner: that the better stories are those with enough familiarity to be understandable, enough novelty to be surprising, and enough of both to provide a pattern for repeated variants.

That claim--which seems akin to the notion of replicable science experiments (with the hope of producing variants, rather than identical results?)-- was played out in very concrete terms in the students' writing assignments:

From the Storytelling Syllabus: The First Sequence of Assignments is an insistent re-telling of fairy tales:
Draft A: Compose your own life of learning.
Draft B: Re-compose your life of learning as a fairy tale (turn the concrete specificity of your life experience into an archetypal tale).
Draft C: Using Bettelheim's methodology (or another), analyze your fairy tale (step back and do a critical reading of your archetypal story).

Much here akin to what arose, two weeks ago, in
Elizabeth McCormack's writing workshop on " The Case for Cross-Training":
Liz ended the conversation by tracing a spectrum of writing, from the diary through the reporting and scholarly modes....
Liz suggested that we might learn to be more effective writers by learning more about how different disciplines write.

Act IV: Stop-Action: The Division of Story from Story, of Theory from Action

It seems time, now, to elaborate on the (too-simple?) claim that science=story=science,
to disentangle several sorts of stories from one another--
and to suggest that the "stories" that science tells take a particular form:

  • not (just) the records of observations in the laboratory
  • not the "conserving" stories of The Frenches of Woodstock, Virginia,
  • not the personal stories of autobiography,
  • not the archetypal stories of fairytales,
  • but the skeptical, alternative-offering stories that are "scientific fictions," useful because

In taking the risk of calling these "scientific fictions," I follow the lead of August Comte
(from Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, 1990):

"'Like the other sciences,' writes Francois Jacob, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize for medicine, 'biology...is no longer seeking for truth. It is building its own truths. Reality is seen as an ever-unstable equilibrium...swinging to and fro between...the identity of phenomena and the diversity of being.' The instability of difference and sameness lies at the very heart of the biological enterprise....August Comte, the guiding spirit of 19th century positivism, confessed that 'there seems no sufficient reason why the use of scientific fictions...should not be introduced into biology.' And Emile Durkheim...argued that 'we buoy ourselves up with a vain hope if we believe that the best means of preparing for the coming of a new science is first patiently accumulating all the data it will use. For we cannot know what it will require unless we have already formed some conception of it.' Science does not simply investigate, but itself constitutes, the difference [it] explores....."

** figure reflects a conversation between Paul and me, and is my reformulation of
his attempt to make sense of science in terms of elaboration of "stories," rather than accumulation of "facts"
* phrase is taken from an interchange between Paul and Paula on the Brown Bag Forum

Two Examples of "Scientific Fictions"--> "Facts":
the "problem" of non-locality (as represented in Rebecca Goldstein's novel, Properties of Light, 2000),
and Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion (1887)

UCR/California Museum of Photography Index of Muybridge Photographs

What did you see?

When Tamara spoke last week about Presenting Science Within and Outside of the Lab, we identified our (natural?) strong preference for storytelling/meaning-making, and concomitant disinclination to attend to the details of observation on which such stories are based. Muybridge's work--as interpreted by

  • Marta Braun, "Muybridge's Scientific Fictions." Studies in Visual Communication 10.1 (Summer 1984): 2-22 and
  • Marta Braun, "The Expanded Present: Photographing Movement." Beauty of Another Order: Photography in Science.
    Ed. Ann Thomas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997: 150-184.

--provides a great example of this "preference" and its consequences. According to Braun,
"Muybridge's photographs were inaccurate: he used more than one camera, the object was not photographed from a constant perspetive or from a single point of view or at equal intervals of time. The intermediary phases of the movement were too hard to piece together from the ones that were pictured...."

Also, he fiddled with his data:

"From the notebooks Muybridge kept daily...we know that...he always made twelve lateral and 24 foreshortened views of each subject, yet only about half of the prints published in Animal Locomotion contain 36 intact images. The others are assemblages, who sequential format dictates our perception of the relationships among the individual images that make up the finished print, even when there is no relationship." ("The Expanded Present,"173)

"The photographs objectify erotic impulse and extend voyeuristic curiosity in a language we now recognize to be taken from the standard pornographic vocabulary. Naked women meet and kiss, kneel in supplication, crawl around on their hands and knees and on all fours. They disrobe each other, pour water down each other's throat and dump buckets of it over each other's heads..."

"Muybridge's concern is with stories, not with movement...the setting...stimulated more than just an interest in the rhythms of gesture and posture. Each sequence and each single image invites us to transform the models into dramatis personae frozen into unaccustomed postures of beguiling attraction. We are not limited to a purely formal consideration of the contours of the body or the shape of any action but are impelled...into the world of dramatic narrative....Titles such as 'Turning around in surprise and running away' ('Ashamed' in the notebooks) help to establish the tale." ("Muybridge's Scientific Fictions," 18)

Descending stairs and turning around

In line with our discussion with Tamara about our disinclination
to attend to the details of observation on which such stories are based,

Braun taught me that Muybridge's work became the basis of the experiments of Etienne Jules Marey, a French physiologist who invented early versions of electrocardiographs, encephalographs and oscilloscopes. As Marey adopted Muybridge's techniques for his own purposes (to formulate the laws that governed assemblages of matter in motion), he found that

the surfeit of detail was obscuring what he wanted to see--the clear expression of movement. It was the camera's duplication of seeming normalcy of vision that Mary had to superdsede to find the vision beyond sight...he eliminated the confusing superimposition...by covering the whole body in black and marking its joints in white. Removing the imprint of flesh and skin finally revealed the moving parts of the animal machinery. Now he had pure movement detached from the performer, conveyed in a graphic form....Marey called this method "chronophotography."

Marey sought not to represent nature, but to discover the laws that governed it.... Marey's indifference to the duplication of sensory perception produced an analytic method that become the technological base of motion pictures ....he had no interest in duplicating sensory perception: "the real character of a scinetific method is to supplant the insufficiency of our senses and correct their errors." ("The Expanded Present,"159, 174-175)

Hollywood's 19th century philosophical origins: Taylorism, Comte, and Marey

Marey's technology was then put to practical use in Frank Bunker Gilbreth's photographs of "efficient and inefficient work operations," used to represent and analyse the motion of workers on shop floors and in offices in the bid to determine the ideal speed or posture needed to provide maximum economy of effort and minimum fatigue. ("The Expanded Present,"160)

Gilbreth and Moller: "The One Best Way"

Here's the sequence we've traced:
  • Muybridge "shaped" the observations of bodily action into "fictionalized" sequences, or "stories"
  • Marey--finding that the "surfeit of detail" in Muybridge's accounts "obscured what he wanted to see"--
    "abstracted" them into representations of movement
  • Gilbreth "applied" those abstractions to "practical" ends (unfortunately, to "one best end"....)

    Or, in terms of the earlier figure,

    This is not, of coure, the final step; consider, for instance, the work of Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), inventor and developer of the electronic flash, whose photographs, according to Braun, reconfirm our belief in the camera's power to picture reality as something we can see ("The Expanded Present," 184):

    ...In other words, these photographs bring us 'round again to observations...
    and the cycle begins again:

    Another way of saying....Bio 103 Revised, Via Fairy Tales:

    Act V: The "Final Scene" (as represented in Goldstein's The Properties of Light)

    David Bohm's "hidden variables" formulation (which was a deterministic model) of quantum mechanics is the model for Mallachian mechanics in Goldstein's novel:

    In Malach's model....there awaited, like some fairy-tale princess, the electron, with real position and real momentum, everything real and existing even when unobserved, as well it should be, and it was this...electron, that was the true value answering to "hidden variable." (42)

    Mallachian mechanics...brings out into the light...the utterly startling, but nonetheless utterly undeniable fact that nature is, in the word of the physicist, "nonlocal"; events can have instantaneous influences on other, far-distant events. A crude way of seeing that non-locality--and therefore quantum mechanics--is at odds with Einstein's relativity theory is to remember that it is fundamental to relativity that nothing can travel faster than light, whereas these instantaneous propagations of influence seem to indicate superluminal, in fact infinite, velocities....a correlate of illusive nonrelativistic time appears to be caught up in the quantum situation known as entanglement: systems becoming so enmeshed with one another that the question of their distinct wave functions can no longer be meaningfully raised; only the wave function of their union can be defined. (71-72)

    "All things linked are. Thou canst not stir a flower, without troubling of a star." (95)

    Einstein, affirming the "separation principle," had ruled against the possibility of a nonlocal influence--of particles, widely separate, instantaneously affecting the behavior of one another...what Einstein couldn't acept was the radical incoherence...Schrodinger, too. He called non-locality black magic...."Measurement on separated systems cannot directly influence each other--that would be magic."(105)

    Following the suggestion in Irreligious Researchers Differ in Their Views on Faith (An Interview of Paul Grobstein and Other Scientists), that "the normal subject matter of religions--where we come from, why we exist--are quite legitimate areas for exploration using the fundamental principles of science...if you broaden science and reduce the strictures of some religions, they are essentially the same thing,"

    and following the suggestion from Elizabeth McCormack's writing workshop on " The Case for Cross-Training,"
    that we can transform the sort of writing anxiety that is disabling into something productive, by thinking of it as the expression of a tension. We are nervous about "making a commitment to one narrative" (when we connect the dots between A and B, for instance, we are not connecting C to D). But the ability to construct such an account can also be the source of enjoyment in the process. [Liz] also said that remembering that our brains are always at work "in the background," getting ideas, might help us relax, be less judgmental, open up and use ourselves as a source of data in our writing--

    --perhaps "fairy tales" trace the arenas in which science will step next...
    the "fictions" that invite the "fact-finding" of scientific observation...?

    It is Possible (and More Interesting)
    to have Multiple Conflicting Accounts
    (of the Same Events) in Play Simultaneously.
    Recording Them Does Not Equal Truth
    (i.e., They Conflict with One Another, and
    Fail to Function as an Accurate Record of What Was).
    & Insistance on a Single Right Account Reduces
    the Natural Desire of a Curious Child To Explore
    (=To Discover? To Write an Alternative Story?)

    Lie "scientific fictions"=
    "facts which are acts"??

    Return to Brown Bag Home Page: Science's Audiences

Home | Calendar | About | Getting Involved | Groups | Initiatives

Director: Paul Grobstein -
pgrobste@brynmawr.edu | Faculty Steering Committee | Acting Secretary: Selene Platt - splatt@brynmawr.edu
© 2003-2004, by Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College and Serendip