“It was Christmas Eve, 1986. I was sat on a nuclear reactor, inside a nuclear submarine, holding a paintbrush…”. A quote. From a story that you would not immediately associate with science. But then this is how The Story Collider plays it. And here we were, in the middle of a Grade II listed, high-ceilinged and freezing cold ex-church in Hackney, listening as quietly as ex-church mice.
Founded in New York in 2010 by Ben Lillie and Brian Hecht, Story Collider held its first UK event in collaboration with British Science Week at the Round Chapel Arts Centre. The concept of The Story Collider is simple enough; people tell stories about science to a live audience. Audiences at the events have been moved to tears and laughter, intrigue and amazement (often via great suspense), by a varied collective of people affected in one way or another by science including doctors, researchers, actors, conservationists, authors, neuroscientists and designers.
The event in Hackney was graced by six such storytellers, including Ben Lillie himself, who opened the evening with a personal story of his own – the posthumous discovery of the greatness of his own grandfather’s achievements in science, stopped brutally short of a Nobel Prize. Gaia Vince, a British environmental journalist for The Guardian, told her story of ambush evasion en route to Lake Turkana in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Her fast paced and breathless recountment of a car journey across the desert rife with misadventure held us in nervous anticipation of the ending. I won’t spoil it in case you read her book, Adventures in the Anthropocene.
Then, in a story straight out of a Daniel Defoe novel, we heard from Henry Duffy, a friendly and bearded chap, whose appearance belied his years of experience in field research. He described his impulsively-joined research trip to study marine ecosystems in the Pitcairn Islands, a trip that saw him conduct never before achieved research in the area, alone. On an island which at last count had 56 inhabitants. An island from which the nearest airport is over 300 miles away. An island reached only by a shipping vessel providing passage once every three months…
From the intrigue of the Pitcairn ecosystems we took a comic turn toward the life scientific of Steve Crabtree, 17 year editor of BBC’s Horizon documentaries, who detailed his unconventional and fascinating career path, mirroring the comic-book characters he adored as a youngster; zero school qualifications to painting and decorating via a nuclear submarine (see opening quote) finally reaching the offices of the BBC as a plucky wannabe researcher over 20 years ago.
French designer Nelly Ben Haroun, dubbed the “Willy Wonka of design and science“, told us the hilarious and inspirational story of the founding of the International Space Orchestra, depicting, in French-accented detail, the frustrating hurdles she came up against; “I emailed NASA every single day for two years. Nothing. Just some threatening letters from the U.S. government”. That was until she walked through the doors of NASA as self-professed ‘Director of the International Space Orchestra’ and got everybody on board (pun very much intended).
And finally, Elizabeth Pisano, American born journalist and epidemiologist, drew the evening to a close. Best known for her work in the field of HIV and author of controversial book, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS, (her TED talk, Sex, Drugs and HIV- let’s get rational, is not to be missed.), Pisano regaled a fascinating tale of how a Javanese prostitute taught her everything she needed to know about science at a dinner party in Indonesia one evening.
One is always marginally sceptical about a medium so dependent on good narrative skills and delivery. But the stories were fascinating, threaded as they were with science and adventure. Something I would have benefited from being exposed to at school as one of the ‘great disenchanted’, in place of stale and overused careers advice.
The Science Collider is science communication like no other. It’s endearingly meandering and emotive, it’s not hard science as we know it. It’s the human side of hard science- and that’s what will make the difference to the both the next generation, and those bored with the notion of science as an impenetrable and unemotional fortress. This is what we need! Kudos to Ben Lillie for giving science the shake up it needs and deserves.
Story Collider took place at the Round Chapel Arts Centre in Hackney on March 17th 2016, as part of British Science Week, which is taking place around the UK from 11th-20th March 2016. For more information and scheduled events click here and for more Story Collider events click here.
Sophie Walsh is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.