Sunday, September 06, 2015

Science and narrative tension

Recently I've come across some good examples of multidisciplinary science communication.  The point of commonality:  narrative tension, in the sense that the science is woven in as part of telling a story.  The viewer/reader really wants to know how the story resolves, and either is willing to deal with the science to get there, or (more impressive, from the communication standpoint) actually wants to see the science behind the plot resolution.

Possibly the best example of the latter is The Martian, by Andy Weir.  If you haven't read it, you should.  There is going to be a big budget film coming out based on it, and while the preview looks very good, the book is going to be better.  Here is an interview with Andy Weir by Adam Savage, and it makes the point that people can actually like math and science as part of the plot.

Another recent example, more documentary-style, is The Mystery of Matter:  Search for the Elements, which aired this past month on PBS in the US.  The three episodes are here, here, and here.  This contains much of the same information as a Nova episode, Hunting the Elements.  It's interesting to contrast the two - some people certainly like the latter's fun, jaunty approach (wherein the host plays the every-person proxy for the audience, saying "Gee whiz!" and asking questions of scientists), while the former has some compelling historical reenactments.  I like the story-telling approach a bit more, but that may be because I'm a sucker for history.  Note:  Nice job by David Muller in Hunting the Elements, using Cornell's fancy TEM to look at the atoms in bronze.

I also heard a good story on NPR this week about Ainissa Ramirez, a materials scientist who has reoriented her career path into "science evangelist".   Her work and passion are very impressive, and she is also a proponent of story-telling as a way to hold interest.  We overlapped almost perfectly in time at Stanford during our doctorates, and I wish we'd met. 

Now to think about the equivalent of The Martian, but where the audience longs to learn more about condensed matter physics and nanoscale science to see how the hero survives.... (kidding.  Mostly.)

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