A theoretical physicist, a psychologist and a handful of award-winning authors walk into a room. This isn’t the beginning of the world’s nerdiest joke; it’s just your typical Thursday night at the World Science Festival. “Science and Story: The Write Angle,” a panel discussion at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, brought together six writers who combine the expansive discoveries of science with the elements of storytelling.
Moderator John Hockenberry, acclaimed journalist and host of WNYC and PRI’s The Takeaway, shepherded the discussion between the literary lights: Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology; novelist E.L. Doctorow; prolific author Joyce Carol Oates; science journalist Jo Marchant; and Steven Pinker, a psychologist and linguist at Harvard who researches cognition and morality.
When asked why he chose to write, Pinker said it was his duty, as a researcher whose work was supported by taxpayers, to reveal what he finds. And “what I was doing was so interesting, I couldn’t keep it to myself,” Pinker says. “[Telling the story] is part of my responsibility as a scientist.”
Oates said novelists find fertile narrative ground in scientific theories and history. She pointed to the intersection of science, culture and religion inherent in Darwin’s theory of evolution as a great story generator.
The discussion ranged from the craft of storytelling to more nebulous topics—our understanding of Newtonian versus quantum mechanics, the danger of adopting new technology without knowing its consequences, and science writers’ obligation to both educate and entertain readers.
“I want science to be as big a part of everyday conversation as politics or movies. Everybody should follow along, debate it—and everyone should have their own theory about quantum mechanics,” joked Carroll.
But the liveliest discussion of the night was about consciousness; the thing that we usually believe distinguishes us from robots. According to the panelists, that boundary might be getting a bit fuzzier.
Doctorow made a character in his novel Andrew’s Brain a cognitive scientist so he could speak authoritatively about the mind. “But,” he said, “if and when we can replace the brain [with manufactured intelligence] and engineer it to have consciousness, that will be the end of human-ness.”
Marchant asked if it would ever be possible to have a conscious brain without a body, because so much of our conscious feeling is based on physical sensation.
“I’m not sure if consciousness needs a body—do you need one to see red, or listen to middle C?” Pinker mused. “Any intelligence system could learn if it has the proper learning algorithms. Once designed by a human, there’s no reason why it couldn’t trundle off on its own and disconnect from its designer.”
“But could it write?” Oates quipped.
In the ensuing question-and-answer session, an attendee asked what our society would need to do to make science a topic of everyday discussion. “As a science journalist, I feel strongly that we should hold science to account,” Marchant said. “We should have an intelligent debate as well as offer explanation, and have the confidence to tussle with science.”
Another attendee asked how scientists explained abstract concepts in narrative form. Carroll suggested metaphors, such as likening the expanding universe to dots drawn on a balloon as it’s being inflated. But, he said, there’s no inside or outside to the universe as there is with a balloon, so writers should be aware of the limits of analogy.
That intrigued Maria Jerskey and her 17-year-old son Gene, who have been coming to World Science Festival events for several years. Added Ms. Jerskey, “I also liked the juxtaposition of science writing and writing about science, and how writers can create situations to explore science further. We all want to share and be understood.”
Photo Credit: Greg Kessler
By: Kat Long
Sign up for our free newsletter to see exclusive features and be the first to get news and updates on upcoming WSF programs.