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The Science of Narrative

Fenella Saunders

Over the centuries, researchers have converged on a fairly consistent and well-formulated set of rules of how the scientific method should work. But when it comes to the best ways to present and describe the discoveries that result, opinions abound. American Scientist has long covered this topic with gusto, adding many voices and distinct perspectives to the debate. See, for instance, one of our most popular articles, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” by George Gopen and Judith Swan, published in November–December 1990 (available online at

In this issue we are pleased to present new ideas on this topic from two of our regular columnists, who come to the discussion from intriguingly different backgrounds. Chemist and Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, writing in this issue’s Perspective column, “The Tensions of Scientific Storytelling,” “chafes” at the idea that scientific papers are not regarded as narrative literature, and describes the drama that can unfold in the telling of a scientific advance. Humanities scholar Robert Louis Chianese, in his Arts Lab column, “A New Language for Ecology,” opines that scientific descriptions could present a more complete picture of reality if authors sometimes dared to draw on the language of poetry. Their arguments are, in a way, two sides of the same coin.

The crossovers between science and the humanities don’t stop there. Two of our regular columns focus on classic literature in this issue. Brian Hayes’s Computing Science column, “Belle lettres Meets Big Data,”  looks at the history of numerical analysis of literary texts dating back to the 1800s, and examines what those results can reveal about the authors who penned the works. Henry Petroski’s Engineering column, “The Story of Two Houses,”  describes an 1874 novella that uses a family’s story as a narrative device to focus on the architectural and engineering aspects of designing a house; Petroski then ties that to another narrative about the construction of his own home.

Narrative is one of the secret ingredients of American Scientist—secret because scientists rarely describe it as a crucial part of their method, even though it is intrinsic to the process of formulating a question and communicating an answer. The feature articles in this issue are filled with scientists developing their own new scientific narratives. Our authors describe discoveries about new kinds of fat cells, power extracted from the forces between molecules, reasons for nonbreeding in complex animal societies, and the geologic underpinnings of dangerous landslides.

As storytelling continues to expand into digital formats, American Scientist is adding multimedia features to complement our print content. As always, we encourage your feedback and participation. The ongoing story of science is your story, too. —Fenella Saunders

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