Thursday, October 02, 2008

Tell Me a Story

In this great commencement speech at Caltech, Robert Krulwich gives some great advice to future scientists.

It's titled "Tell Me a Story". You can listen to it at the link above. I first heard this thanks to an episode of Best of The Left podcast.

I was able to find a partial transcript of it:

When you are asked "What you are working on?", should you think, "There's no I way I can talk about my science with this guy, because I don't have the talent, I don't have the words, I don't have the patience to do it. It's too hard. And anyways, what's the point?"

[In writing his Principia,] Issac Newton didn't care to be understood by average folks. But here's the argument I want to make to you guys this morning. You're not going to hear this advice often; I suggest you may never here it again. When asked about your work, do not do what Isaac Newton did. No, no, no!

When a cousin or an uncle or a buddy comes up and asks you "So, what are you working on?", even if it's hard to explain, even if you know they don't really want to hear it (not really), I urge you to give it a try. Because, talking about science, telling stories to regular folks, is not a trivial thing. Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists because science stories, and you know this, have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how the universe came to be. And some of those other stories -- Bible stories, movie stories, myths -- can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science and scientists (this is not a gentle competition), you've to get in there and tell yours, your version of how things are and why things came to be.

[T]here is a tension here among scientists between two kinds of truth: math and narrative. But the job that we face, and I should come clean with you and tell you what's really on my mind here, is to put more stories out there about nature that are true and complex -- not dumbed down -- but still have the power to enthrall, to excite, to remind people there's a deep beauty, a many-level beauty, in the world. And what scientists say is not their off-hand opinion; it's hard won information. It's carefully hewn from the world. It's not the bunch of ideas from a tribe of privileged intellectuals who look down on everybody…But it's my sense that if more scientists wanted to, they could learn how to tell their stories with words and pictures and metaphor, and people will hear and remember those stories and not be as willing to accept the other folks' stories. Or at least, there will be a tug of war. And I think the science stories will, surprisingly, win.

I'm reminded of Sagan and the series Cosmos. Parts of it may be outdated, and he certainly had slings and arrows aimed at him...but I remember, quite vividly, sitting down and watching this with my Dad when I was a young one. So much so that I own the series on DVD today.

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