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The Tensions of Scientific Storytelling

Science depends on compelling narratives.

Roald Hoffmann

2014-07PerspectiveHoffmannFp251Click to Enlarge ImageSimplicity pleases the mind. Some scientists claim that equations are likely to be correct because they are simple, or that molecules naturally assume more symmetric arrangements of atoms, or that multistep mechanisms for chemical reactions are less common than concerted one-fell-swoop reactions. What happens when the scientist’s hard work reveals that the equation is messy, the molecule looks like an odd clump of pasta, and the mechanism has at least 17 steps?

In my July–August 2000 column, I argued that in such situations telling a story takes the place of simplicity as a pleasing principle. Because narrative is not reducible to mathematics, it is not given its due in our scientific world. Too bad; storytelling is both ancient and deeply human. It is a shared treasure between science and the arts and humanities.

The study of stories is an established field of literary criticism or theory. In Introduction to Narratology, Monika Fludernik defines a narrative:

…a representation of a possible world in a linguistic and/or visual medium, at whose center there are one or several protagonists of an anthropomorphic nature who are existentially anchored in a temporal and spatial sense… It is the experience of these protagonists that narratives focus on, allowing readers to immerse themselves in a different world and in the lives of the protagonists.

Narratologists tend to exclude scientific texts and lectures from their purview because of the requirement that stories have a human or anthropomorphic protagonist. They also point to that distinguishing characteristic of fiction, seemingly absent from scientific papers, that we may, through the author’s imagination, enter another person’s mind.

Having read thousands of chemical papers and listened to hundreds of colleagues’ lectures, I chafe against being ruled out of bounds. In the papers I read and write, I feel stories unfold before me. I react to them emotionally. I sense narrative devices in these articles and lectures, employed both spontaneously and purposefully. Let me try here to tease out some of the overlooked narrative attributes of science.

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