Brian Wecht ’97 is in the business of science stories. A comedian, musician and theoretical physician, Wecht co-founded the radio program “The Story Collider” in 2010 with the aim of combining scientists and stories in the same way that physicists might combine different bits of matter in a particle collider. (Or something like that, anyway. As an English major whose only foray into physics was a single class in high school that hardly got further than force equals mass times acceleration, my knowledge of physics is not particularly great.)
But you don’t have to be a science major to enjoy Wecht’s program, something that was obvious last Friday night when Wecht returned to his alma mater to host a live show of “The Story Collider” in Goodrich Hall. Five people, all science professors or students, shared stories: Assistant Professor of Geosciences Phoebe Cohen (who collaborated with Wecht to host the event), Conor Mook ’16, Hugh Powell, senior science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Assistant Professor of Psychology Mariko Moher and Wecht himself. All the storytellers were engaging, as they told narratives that were gripping, moving and quite powerful. Science, to these storytellers, isn’t just a set of facts. It is a part of their lives. While all of the stories centered on experiments, labs and scientific study, they were about other things, too – learning how to let go, learning how to mother, learning how to love.
But if the storytelling on Friday night wasn’t only about science, there did seem to be a scientific method to it. And it was that method that I sought to discover the next morning, when I took part in a four-hour workshop hosted by Wecht and Cohen in Clark Hall. There were ten people in attendance – nine students, including myself, and one professor.
The day began with a few surveys about our previous storytelling experience and a discussion of what story we’d connected to most last night. Unlike programs such as “The Moth,” “The Story Collider” doesn’t have judges; there are no “winners” and “losers,” and the goal is to connect with the audience, not to achieve the highest score. It was that aim – connecting with others – that Wecht said ought to be our focus.
We were given 15 minutes to make a list of potential story ideas, and then we split up into pairs to pitch ours ideas to other person and see which resonated most. “The Story Collider” focuses on science stories, but this restriction wasn’t enforced on Saturday, something that I, at least, greatly appreciated, because, as I’ve perhaps intimated, my scientific knowledge has some gaps.
Still, it was surprisingly difficult to come up with story ideas when the only prompt was to come up with story ideas. My own life, when looked at in this light, started to seem somewhat uninteresting. Sure, I’d done some fun, interesting enough things, but nothing that congealed easily into a singular, lengthy narrative, nothing that screamed, “Story!”
But as Wecht told us, “Everyone has stories. If you think you don’t, you’re wrong.” Storytelling, he implied, is less about having an interesting life and more about seeing things in an interesting way. Wecht’s own storytelling instructor used to say that her favorite story was about a woman who had brought cookies to work one day that her co-workers didn’t like.
After a lunch break, we had time to write a quick draft of our stories, before pairing up again and reading (or, for the slower writers among us, like me, half reading and half telling on the fly) our stories to each other. We gave each other feedback, edited some more and then, finally, with about twenty minutes left, we were given the chance to tell our stories before the whole workshop, which served as our own miniature “Story Collider” audience.
Even speaking in front of nine other people was very nerve-wracking to me. Telling a story was hard. But hearing the stories of the other nine people in the workshop was pretty fantastic. You learn things about a person that you wouldn’t otherwise in the normal back-and-forth of conversation. Giving people the space to tell a story and to speak without interruption lets them open up, lets them try, as much as possible, to get to some heart, some personal truth.
Something happens, I think, when you tell a story, some chemical reaction between seen and unseen, real and – not exactly unreal, but unsubstantial, unprovable. And perhaps that’s part of the brilliance of “The Story Collider”: that it connects science with story, fact with meaning, data point with pathos.
I’m not a scientist, but I felt it then, sitting in that classroom, listening, the electricity that flares in the room when a good story is told, the connections unfurling like the ionic bonds among innu-merable atoms. (Or, well, something like that.)