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Sharing stories about science

5 June 2014
At Story Collider gatherings, people tell true stories about how science has touched their lives.

When theoretical physicists Ben Lillie and Brian Wecht launched the Story Collider four years ago, they were merging their shared passions for science and performance. Lillie had jumped the academic ship a year earlier, and Wecht continues to balance academia and performance.

Inspired by other storytelling projects—especially the Moth—and drawing on their physics backgrounds, the two created a venue for people to tell true, personal stories about how their lives have intersected with science. The name Story Collider is meant to evoke the Large Hadron Collider. And, says Wecht, "we are bringing together, or colliding, science and personal experience."

The Story Collider has developed into a not-for-profit organization that holds monthly events in New York City and regular shows in Boston and London, and it increasingly travels to other places. Each week one story is uploaded as a free podcast. Often, an evening of storytelling at the Story Collider has a theme. Game theory, mental health, storms, phase transitions, and sports science are examples.

Brian Wecht (left) and Ben Lillie host the Story Collider in Brooklyn, New York. CREDIT: Eric Michael Pearson.

Brian Wecht (left) and Ben Lillie host the Story Collider in Brooklyn, New York. CREDIT: Eric Michael Pearson.

Wecht, who also does comedy, says he keeps performing "because it's generally an itch I don't get to scratch by doing math." For his part, Lillie realized that his real love is the big picture of science, and how science affects people's lives, not the nitty-gritty calculations that he did day to day as a researcher.

Physics Today interviewed Lillie and Wecht by phone to get the story behind the Story Collider.

PT: How did you each happen to go into physics?

LILLIE: I was originally going to be a playwright. But when I got to [Reed] college I discovered I wasn't liking theater so much. I took an introductory physics course from David Griffiths—everyone used his undergrad-level quantum mechanics textbook, the one with a live cat on the front and a dead cat on the back. He turned out to be an amazing teacher. I fell in love with physics and with science. And this is a weird thing to say, but it was much easier for me than theater.

So then I went to grad school at Stanford. It went well, and I went on to do a postdoc.

WECHT: I was attracted to physics for the same reasons everyone is: I'm interested in the fundamental questions—What is the universe made out of? and stuff like that.

I have an undergraduate degree in music and math. In my senior year at Williams College I thought, I've taken all this classical physics, I would feel like a total jerk if I never took quantum. So I took quantum mechanics and just totally fell in love with it. I pulled out of a music PhD program at the last minute so I could try to get into a physics PhD program. It worked out, and I went to UCSD [University of California, San Diego]. It dovetailed with the fact that my girlfriend at the time had moved to San Diego. We broke up four months later, but the physics part stayed great.

I moved to London a bit more than a year ago for a permanent job at Queen Mary [University of London]. It was such a relief to get it. I was a postdoc for eight years—which is increasingly typical for someone in my field. London is amazing, not only because it's a great city, but also because it's the only place in the world that's hiring people in my field these days.

PT: Ben, why did you leave academia?

LILLIE: Midway through my postdoc, I had this realization that maybe I was in the wrong field. I discovered that while I loved physics, and loved thinking about physics and talking about physics with people, I didn't particularly love doing the research. I did high-energy particle theory, in a subfield called phenomenology. I was doing calculations for searches for new physics, like maybe there are extra dimensions of spacetime: How would you use data from the Large Hadron Collider to find them? We also looked at some weird version of supersymmetry; how would you find those?

The vast majority of what I was doing was coding. I would run big data simulations all the time, which wasn't really what I had signed up for.

I realized that what I cared about was how science interacts with people, and how it affects people, and how people affect it.

It was a sudden revelation. I've left out a whole substory about having anxiety attacks. In graduate school I'd had anxiety bad enough that I was put on medication. The medication sort of flattened everything out. So I wasn't getting sad about anything, or nervous, but I also was not getting terribly excited. At some point I quit the medication cold turkey—which is a very dumb thing to do, but having quit, I realized that a lot of the anxiety was just coming from simply not being in the right place. So, I up and quit. I was coming to the end of my first postdoc. I had another one lined up, but I phoned up and said, "Sorry, I am not going to show up." I moved to New York with the idea of being a writer.

PT: How did the two of you meet?

LILLIE: When I got to New York, I decided that one way to meet people would be to take an improv comedy class. It was a lot of fun, and I did meet people. In the middle of that, I discovered storytelling and the Moth, and fell in love with that. I was doing storytelling and some comedy and someone came up to me and said, "So, do you know the other theoretical physicist who does improv comedy?" That was Brian.

WECHT: I was a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I was doing performing stuff in New York, comedy. A friend suggested I take a storytelling class—storytelling is this huge thing in New York. So I did. The first thing we did was go around the room and say something unusual about ourselves. So when it was my turn, I say, "I'm a theoretical physicist." The teacher was like, "Oh, I know another guy who does that." It was Ben. I'd known his name from research. We were not quite in the same field—he was more a phenomenologist and I am a quantum field theorist—I bounce around in the general vicinity of quantum field theory, supersymmetry, and string theory. We were postdocs at the same time, and I had seen his name on papers on the arXiv.

We essentially went on a story date. I think at our first meeting, we said we should do a science storytelling thing. It ballooned from there.

PT: Tell me about the Story Collider.

LILLIE: We started the Story Collider because we thought it would be fun. Now I have all kinds of things I can say about why it's great to tell these stories, and what they accomplish. But the actual reason we started it was to have fun.

We have a live show about once a month in New York. And we travel—we do a show every few months in Boston, and we've done shows in Atlanta, Chicago, DC, and Pittsburgh. And now that Brian has a job in London, he does shows there. A show typically has five stories.

PT: What is your aim with the Story Collider?

LILLIE: About half of our storytellers are scientists, and half have nothing to do with science in their professional life. I like the mix, because part of the point is, we are trying to get across that science is a part of everyone's life.

When people think of science, it's sort of this big scary thing that you have to learn everything about and be heavily involved in to get. But I like the idea that you can also have a light involvement that is still meaningful. In some ways, I actually think this is more valuable because it drives home the idea that science is part of society that is part of everyone.

And storytelling about science fills a niche that isn't addressed much. We have excellent science that focuses on results and data, and our view of the universe through science, but not as much that focuses on how science affects individual people.

PT: How do you find storytellers? And how much work goes on behind the scenes?

LILLIE: We get them any way we can. People pitch stories to us at the end of every show, and on our website. We approach people who we think might have good stories.

WECHT: Scientists are not performers, so we work with them on how to tell a story, and how to tell the kind of story we want to tell. We don't want people to give a popular talk and explain how science works and talk about their research. That's the natural thing for a scientist. We are not looking for a talk, we are looking for a story with a narrative structure. And the thing we are interested in is the emotional or personal aspect of it, not the explanation of the science.

PT: To what extent is this a job versus a hobby for you?

WECHT: My university is extremely supportive. They recognize that it is a valuable outreach activity. I hadn't thought of it as outreach until I moved to the UK. I was always kind of reluctant to tell my physics colleagues about this side of my life. But when I went to interview for my job at Queen Mary, they had found some videos of me performing. And even at the interview they were super supportive.

At one event, I found out late that the venue thought I was buying liquor for everybody. You cannot have an event in London without serving liquor, but I was not going to spend £500 [$840] of my money to buy it. I talked to my department, and they were like, "Yes, we'll buy the beer." They recognized that it's an important part of having an event, and making it casual, social, and nonacademic.

LILLIE: It was a side project to my day job, but I'm now full-time on Story Collider. I was working part-time for TED [Technology, Entertainment, and Design].

PT: How did you happen to work for TED, and what did you do?

LILLIE: I went to a birthday party, which is always how you get jobs in New York. Late in the party the birthday girl came up to me, dragging this guy. She said, "Ben, this is my ex-boyfriend. He likes science. You two should talk." So we did. He worked at TED. A few months later, they needed a freelancer and he thought of me. That kept growing, and they brought me into the office. I wrote on the TED blog, did Q&As with TED speakers, and some copywriting. I stopped because my other stuff was taking too much time, and in the end I want to do my own projects.

PT: Brian, does Story Collider feed back into your academic life in any way?

WECHT: Oh yes. I give a lot of talks—both research seminars and public talks. Even when I give a research seminar about a technical result—and let's face it, 99% of what I do in physics is technical—the question I always ask myself is, What is the story I am trying to tell? So, my talk will still be for theoretical high-energy physicists, but I'm not grunging through horrific calculations. I'm trying to give the bigger picture and explain why the topic is interesting and what the arc of developments are. So me doing Story Collider, and teaching storytelling through Story Collider, has been invaluable for me as a speaker.

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