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HOME > PAST ISSUE > July-August 2005 > Article Detail

MARGINALIA

Storied Theory

Science and stories are not only compatible, they're inseparable, as shown by Einstein's classic 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect

Roald Hoffmann

Science seems to be afraid of storytelling, perhaps because it associates narrative with long, untestable yarns. Stories are perceived as "just" literature. Worse, stories are not reducible to mathematics, so they are unlikely to impress our peers.

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This fear is misplaced for two reasons. First, in paradigmatic science, hypotheses have to be crafted. What are alternative hypotheses but competing narratives? Invent them as fancifully as you can. Sure, they ought to avoid explicit violations of reality (such as light acting like a particle when everyone knows it's a wave?), but censor those stories lightly. There is time for experiment—by you or others—to discover which story holds up better.

The second reason not to fear a story is that human beings do science. A person must decide what molecule is made, what instrument built to measure what property. Yes, there are facts to begin with, facts to build on. But facts are mute. They generate neither the desire to understand, nor appeals for the patronage that science requires, nor the judgment to do A instead of B, nor the will to overcome a seemingly insuperable failure. Actions, small or large, are taken at a certain time by human beings—who are living out a story.




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