Great stories can change hearts and minds

I was sitting in a cavernous ballroom at the Boston Convention Center last year, frazzled, air-conditioned and amped on sugar, when George Whitesides proclaimed in a sold-out plenary that we were all ‘terrible storytellers’. This, he said, is why the public remains apathetic toward chemistry while its love for other sciences seems to grow by the day. So what if physicists have black holes and the history of the universe, if biologists lay claim to life and all it entails, or if geologists have cornered the market on volcanoes? Chemists could lay claim to all these fields and more and yet we had let others wade in and steal our thunder while we ‘invent a new type of sandwich wrap’.

It was a strong statement. We all laughed. And I think we all took away something very simple and very unsettling from that talk: how do we tell stories about chemistry that capture imaginations and change hearts and minds? But I would add to that: why do we want to? This latter question is harder to answer than the former. Is it because we want people to love what we love? Is it because society will fall into ruin if the population doesn’t talk about, or at least think about, chemistry? A scientifically literate population that engages with chemistry can only be a good thing but that’s something that people contribute toward in their own way, on their own terms. It’s not within anyone’s power to simply will that scenario into existence, but we can nurture its possibility – which means we’re back to telling great stories.

What is a great story? Perhaps the shortest ever written was attributed to Ernest Hemingway: ‘For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn’. This works because of Hemingway’s typically sparse tracing of an idea; it’s the voids that make it powerful. Novelists, poets and artists of all kinds thrive on creating space for your imagination, allowing mystery and doubt to exist and perpetuate. The short-short story is a great example for the Twitter generation.

I’m not suggesting this narrative style is a magic bullet for chemistry storytelling. For a start, withholding information doesn’t seem very scientific and I doubt any scientist would want to purposefully leave gaps just to spin a yarn. But we can be honest about what we don’t know, and allow our audience to join us in speculating where we might end up. A better understanding of the scientific process would help the public reconcile seemingly contradictory or rapidly changing scientific advice. If the public saw science as an ever-continuing discovery, rather than a race to truth, it would react better to one expert bickering with another, and be less confused when told that red wine both causes and prevents cancer. The public would trust science more, not less, if it knew more about the uncertainties and personalities involved.

The periodic table is, now, 118 story boxes. We can’t all be Primo Levi, and we don’t need to be. I steer you toward Philip Ball’s article  on the risk of ‘sacrificing charm and romance’ – both intrinsic aspects of storytelling. By looking to establish systems of clarity we risk losing the essence of a great narrative: ambiguity.

We’ve given six people the chance to tell a chemistry story on 21 March 2016 at the Royal Institution as part of our own science communication competition. It’s free to attend, it’s suitable for all but places are limited so please register early to avoid disappointment. Encouraging the science storytellers of the future is important, so come along and do your bit. Chemistry needs you.