On Stage, Science Stories Take the Spotlight

Erin Barker and Ben Lillie take the stage at Story Collider. Photo by Mark Zastrow.
Erin Barker and Ben Lillie take the stage at Story Collider. Photo by Mark Zastrow.


By Mark Zastrow 
BU News Service

Cambridge, MA — “I’m so nervous!” cried Emily Graslie, pacing in a dark wing of the basement of the Middle East Club in Cambridge, Mass., as she waited to take the blue-lit stage behind her.

On her YouTube channel, Graslie regularly takes people behind the scenes of natural history museums, cheerfully explaining their dynamics. But she and the other science communicators in the lineup—including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum and MIT physicist/novelist Alan Lightman—weren’t there to lecture and break down science in the regular way.

“You are not going to learn anything,” producer and host Erin Barker assured the crowd. “That is the Story Collider promise. If you feel yourself about to learn, make your way to the bar, order a couple shots, you’ll be fine. Don’t panic.”

Instead, the performers were telling true, personal stories—live, without notes, and about science.

When Graslie took the stage moments later, she held the audience captive, recounting her self-discovery of a passion for zoology as an undergraduate. It led to volunteering at her college museum in Montana, a series of YouTube videos, and eventually being hired by the Field Museum in Chicago under the whimsical title “Chief Curiosity Correspondent.”

She was followed on stage by Kishore Hari, the director of the San Francisco-based Bay Area Science Festival, who related colorful anecdotes from a cross-country trip. Later, physicist and novelist Alan Lightman recounted a childhood tale of a homemade model rocket and its passenger, an unfortunate lizard.

The Sept 22, 2013, event was all part of a growing, four-year-old effort to put a new spin on science – and to embed the effort more deeply in the research-centric Cambridge-Greater Boston community.

It may sound a bit like the shows put on by the New York City-based storytelling startup The Moth, with an added dose of science. And Story Collider’s cofounder Ben Lillie isn’t offended by the comparison—he is himself a winner at the Moth’s “story slam” competitions. But Lillie – a former physicist who worked at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe – and his fellow physicist friend Brian Wecht, founded the Story Collider in 2010 in Brooklyn with an additional motivation: to change the way people think about science.

From the outset, Lillie has said that the Story Collider’s goal is “to humanize science.” It’s about “not just humanizing scientists, but showing how science itself is part of us, both in the everyday experiences, and the extraordinary ones,” he told Scientific American in 2011, after the series had just got under way.

Audience member Jason Makhlouta, a software engineer, said he thought the effort succeeded. “You’ve got these people who give it a human face and a personality,” he said. “It makes all the difference.”

This means a Story Collider event isn’t your typical science lecture, of which you can find dozens on any week night across the labs and campuses of science-crazy

Boston. “It’s definitely a little more, you know, rough-edged,” said science writer Carl Zimmer, “and a little more, you know, alcohol-infused.” He smiled. “Which is good.”

The September Story Collider show in Cambridge also drew people from outside the science community.

Zimmer, who has performed at the Story Collider before, points out that the show’s podcast reaches an audience far beyond the hall. “They’re searchable on Google, and people just find them,” he said. “And lots of people find them. So it’s not just the crowd that’s here, it’s thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who hear it.”

Although sporadic Story Collider events have been held in Greater Boston since its inception, the show is ramping up its presence here, its organizers say. The goal is monthly events. “Boston is a great town to do this show in,” producer Erin Barker said.

“It’s totally a science town…. We’ve never done a show in Boston that didn’t sell out. They love it.”

After the show, a relieved and amped-up Graslie greeted her fans and thanked them for their support. She continues to marvel at the whole phenomenon: “That I can make some kind of contribution to the scientific community that gets other people excited about science, and then they’re going to come out on a weeknight to come see us tell stories in a crowded bar? It’s amazing to me.”

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