As co-producers of the show’s Boston series, Katherine Wu and Ari Daniel help storytellers tap into the human side of science.
To take the stage at The Story Collider, a live storytelling show that consists of “true, personal stories about science,” you don’t need to be a scientist — or even a storyteller. Katherine Wu, co-producer of The Story Collider’s Boston shows, explains you just need to have been affected in some way by science. In other words, you just have to be human.
Wu, along with fellow Story Collider co-producer Ari Daniel, helps “tellers” of all stripes turn their brushes with science into compelling narratives that explore the human side of science. The two producers spoke to Knight Science Journalism Fellows last week about the challenges and thrills of creating the live shows.
The Story Collider was started by two physicists in New York about nine years ago. Since then, it has expanded to more than a dozen cities scattered across the globe, and about a third of the live shows make it onto their podcast. During the seminar, Daniel and Wu shared audio clips from some of the memorable stories they helped shape: The story of a Harvard student’s harrowing encounter with police; of a sibling who wasn’t there for her sister when she needed it; of a poet coming to grips with a speech impediment.
One particularly riveting story, which Wu and Daniel played in its entirety, came from Richard French, an astronomer who worked on the Cassini Space Probe mission to Saturn. French spoke not only of his science career, which included being advised by Carl Sagan, but of how the journey changed him as a person. He opened up about his difficulties during graduate school, his joy at celebrating Cassini’s 21st flyby of Titan, and the sadness he felt when Cassini flickered out of existence after being decommissioned and sent hurtling into the planet Saturn.
French’s narrative had all the traits that Daniel and Wu said they look for in a story: vivid and vibrant scenes, vulnerability, and a main character — the storyteller — who is left changed by the story’s events. But the story as French told it on stage was a far cry from the version he initially shared with the two producers, they said. His early draft hewed closely to the facts, with little of his own thoughts and emotions; Wu and Daniel encouraged French to put more of himself into the piece.
As Wu explained, that’s because the point of The Story Collider isn’t to teach people; the point is for people to connect on a human level about a subject that can feel very much “othered” in society. Wu said that she and Daniel often joke at their shows that “if you’re learning, you’re doing it wrong.” She said a Story Collider story can succeed even when people come away from it without having learned any facts: “It’s showcasing a side of science that you’re not going to find in a textbook.”