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PERSPECTIVE

The Tensions of Scientific Storytelling

Science depends on compelling narratives.

Roald Hoffmann

Whose Story Is This?

Does the standard scientific article tell the narrator scientist’s story, or is it nature’s? A ready answer is not forthcoming, in part because there are many qualitatively distinct practices of storytelling, even within the one science of chemistry. One part of our science operates in a discovery mode; for example, determining the mechanism by which penicillin deceives the bacterial cell-wall building apparatus. Another part features creation, more akin to the arts and engineering. Here new molecules, say, an antibiotic or a biodegradable polymer, are made. We are graced in chemistry by everything in between, a heady mix of creation and discovery.

In the aspects of chemistry close to creation, the narrator (more than one in coauthored papers) is overt, the spinner of theories, the sequencer of steps in a chemical reaction. The story may be told slowly, in incremental detail, or the goal may be laid out and the achievement is in the path followed. In discovery-mode stories, the narrator may be more obscured. Stories of discovery tell nature’s story, with the scientist only as the conduit—even though the answers would not be known were it not for the scientist.




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