Both Science and Story

campfire

Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

“The border is porous.  Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth.  But the value of knowledge remains.”

That statement is part of a passage I returned to again and again in my multiple readings of a fascinating book called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

Rovelli, in that passage, talks first about “the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years.”  Then he moves on to speak of “the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah—scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something that we can’t see directly but can follow traces of.”

“The confusion,” he adds, “between these two diverse human activities—inventing stories and following traces in order to find something—is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.  The separation is a subtle one:  the antelope hunted at dawn is not far removed from the antelope deity in the night’s storytelling.”

We need both, he says, but he concludes with, “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”

That statement stuck in my head.  “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”

And that is the power of science.  It is what science accomplishes that storytelling cannot.  It can fill our bellies with real antelope meat.

My father was a chemist, a brilliant man, but so much a concrete thinker that, when I embarked on an English literature major in college, he asked, “What is there to learn?”

For him story was merely plot.

That story and science can co-exist—must co-exist if we are to survive in this bewildering world—never occurred to him.  Thus, I have spent much of my life proving the story side of the equation, leaving science for others to attend to.

(I have been glad enough, though, to feast on the conspicuous rewards science has brought into the world over the eight decades of my life.)

But story and science are coming together for me these days.  I am intrigued by the insights I can glean—meager as they are, because my understanding is so limited—from quantum physics.  Science is telling us what mystics have told us for centuries, that we are part of everything and everything is part of us.

An insight that moves me profoundly, one that inhabits my soul and changes me in deep, invisible ways.

And that’s the way story works, too.  We don’t just read stories or listen to them.  We live them.  And in the living, we are, inevitably, transformed.

Yes, “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”  And eating is not just necessary to our survival.  It is profoundly good.

How grateful I am to the minds that have fed me in so many ways, like bringing me the computer that is capturing and disseminating my words today.

As I am grateful to those who have made my life larger through story.

The two co-exist, informing one another, supporting one another, and that is one of the greatest blessings of being alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that we can honor both science and story.

10 thoughts on “Both Science and Story

  1. nancy bo flood

    Story – the hallmark of who we are as humans – the need for hearing story, telling our stories, learning from story, and even controlling others through story. Thank you for this essay, Marion Dane Bauer​. I also suggest reading SAPIENS, a book that describes how our ability to create story has shaped human history.

    Reply
  2. sarahsbookreflections

    Your posts are always lyrical and though provoking, Marion. Thanks for sharing. It did put in mind of my mother who graduated from M.I.T. in 1934 with a degree in Physical Chemistry. But when she retired from her job as a research chemist at NIH in their cancer chemotherapy lab, she devoted her time to learning how to paint and sculpt and throw pots. She loved to read and often had us read poetry out loud to the rest of the family. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  3. Uma Krishnaswami

    Scientists sometimes speak about the beauty of truth, the beauty of coming upon a sudden understanding or seeing a pattern that wasn’t known before. Maybe we can all feel that part of it, even if some of us can’t access the esoteric details.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      I have long been intrigued with scientists’ and mathematicians use of the word “beauty.” I think it often also has something to do with simplicity, but I love your idea of a sudden understanding, too. I’m sure that is an important part of it.

      Reply
  4. miriam

    Marion, do you know the book by Aldous Huxley, “Literature and Science?” (1963). The essays are a fascinating reflection on the relations between art and science, their particular languages, and the influence that each discipline exerts on the other. Not so much about story as language, but might be an interesting corollary to Rovelli’s book.

    Reply
  5. Carleen M. Tjader

    You have done justice to science and story in this post, Marion.
    And because you are a master story writer, have done it beautifully.
    I, too, believe both have enriched my life.

    Reply

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