physics: “locked inside the nucleus of each little invisible atom is a
force so vast it can destroy an entire city!” (2012).
Of course, biology has its own astonishing tales to tell: Inside the
nucleus of every cell are invisible molecules, the precise positions of
atoms within which determines the characteristics of every living
thing on earth! Or, 66 million years ago a space rock the size of
Mt. Everest slammed into the earth at 50,000 miles per hour, and
wiped out the dinosaurs along with nearly three-quarters of all species on the planet!
Indeed, some claims are so astonishing they are initially disbelieved by scientists, and may remain disbelieved by non-scientists
for decades, or centuries.
Gopnik notes that good science stories “startle us with their
strangeness, but they intrigue us by their originality, and end up
rewarding us with the truth, after an effort” (2012).
Mark Twain said famously that the truth is stranger than fiction. One could add that the truth is stronger than fiction.
Plot and a central idea are only half of a story. Science is done
by people—real people. One might think that real-life scientists
could not hold a candle to fictional heroines and heroes endowed
with various superpowers. Think again. Contrary to the stereotype
of dispassionate nerds in white lab coats, science has a good share
of explorers, rebels, and detectives in its ranks. Such characters are
the bread-and-butter of novels, television, and movies.
Indeed, I would put Roy Chapman Andrews, who first discovered
dinosaur eggs in Mongolia, up against Indiana Jones (Andrews partly
inspired the fictional character); Svante Pääbo (Neanderthal genetics)
against Sherlock Holmes; and Lynn Margulis (endosymbiotic origins
of organelles) against any movie rebel. Heck, Carl Woese not long
ago discovered a real ancient kingdom living right under our noses.
Take that, Narnia and Middle-earth!
And what do all of these people have in common? Science is
The Gift of Inspiration
People are drawn to stories for more than entertainment. Robert
McKee, a master storyteller and guru to legions of Hollywood
screenwriters, points out that stories fulfill “the profound human
need to grasp the patterns of living—not merely as an intellectual
exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience” (1997,
p. 12). That emotional experience is very much a part of scientists’
lives. Take Mary and Louis Leakey’s discovery of human origins:
an epic quest, for sure, but also a love story that encompasses ambition, desire, conflict, frustration, betrayal, and ultimately, the thrill of
discovery. These feelings and human qualities such as courage, persistence, sacrifice, and resilience, surface often in stories of scientific
exploration and discovery.
By offering students glimpses into the hearts and lives of
scientists—their passions, aspirations, struggles, setbacks, and the
price many willingly pay to do what they love—stories offer one
of the most precious gifts any student may receive—inspiration.
Students get Jefferson and Lincoln in history class, Shakespeare
and Twain in English class, Beethoven and The Beatles in music
class. Shouldn’t they also get to know the stories of some of the
people who have shaped our understanding of the natural world?
Surely, we don’t want generations of biology students to grow
up like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys:
WENDY: Peter, why did you come to our window?
PETER: To hear a story. None of us know any stories.
WENDY: How perfectly awful!
Perfectly awful indeed!
I thank Laura Bonetta, Rich Stone, and Bill McComas for their helpful comments.
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Egan, K. (1989). Memory, Imagination, and Learning: Connected By the
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Gopnik, A. (2012, May 18). Can Science Explain Why We Tell Stories? The
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Lucas, G. (1977). Star Wars. Lucasfilm, Ltd.
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Screenwriting. New York: Harper Collins.
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Humankind’s Beginnings. New York: Simon and Schuster.
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SEAN B. CARROLL ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Vice president for Science
Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Andrew and
Mary Balo and Nicholas and Susan Simon Professor of Biology at the
University of Maryland–College Park. His newest book, The Story of Life:
Great Discoveries in Biology, will be published by W. W. Norton this fall.