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For the Wonder

Survival of the Storied: Why Science Needs Art and Art Needs Science


(This speech was originally given at the Wisconsin Science Festival)


  • For the wonder of each hour
  • of the day and of the night
  • hill and vale and tree and flower
  • sun and moon and stars of light
  • Lord of All to thee we raise
  • This our hymn of grateful praise

I realize it’s a little odd for a talk about science to begin with a hymn, but let me give you three very good reasons why this one does:

  1. This song is a running element in the play Silent Sky about little known but critical astronomer Henrietta Leavitt who has a wonderful, soulful, creative sister named Margaret who is also a composer and the pianist for their father’s church. The hymn challenges the sisters to reckon with faith, science, meaning, legacy, and with the wonderful dance between math and music. But it’s funny and charming too. Check it out.  
  2. This was my grandmother Beatrice Gunderson’s favorite hymn. She met and married my grandfather in Madison and they both went to the University of Wisconsin. So this is really for her. 
  3. For the wonder of each hour. The wonder. Now, the writer and singer of this hymn give God a bit more credit than I do, but what I see and appreciate in the hymn is this sense of awe and wonder.

Wonder is the shared trunk from which the curiosities, craft, vision and perseverance of both science and art spring. It’s that simple and voluminous wow of the Grand Canyon at sunset, the perfect Phi curl of a fern or a sea shell, a first kiss, the first glimpse of your brand new son, the night sky.  Science and art, though I will speak mostly of the art of storytelling, share a catalyst, a source, a seed, a wow.

Science experiences wow and turns around to say… why is that so? How does that work? What’s next?

Art experiences wow and says… how can I tell everyone else? How can I get that back? What’s next?

Both share that same taproot of curiosity and wonder.

How could they not? Both a scientific and artistic instinct is one of the most widespread and successful adaptations we have evolved into. The creativity and curiosity and technical skill that lay at the heart of both science and story are seen in every human culture on earth. Things that are common and widely experienced are generally assumed to provide a distinct evolutionary advantage for a species. 

As Brian Boyd reminds us in The Origin of Stories, “…both science and story share the root adaptation of play.” Playing, exploring, and playing pretend is an advantage seen in many animal species including ours –as my 1 year old would tell you if he could talk. 

We are evolved for science and story. But why?

Science I get. Figuring things out, understanding and bettering the world through investigation and innovation. Yes. Obviously a good use of our brainpower. 

But story? The work of crafting a narrative is one thing. Narratives are stories well told, whether they come from history or personal experience. I’m talking about fiction. What on earth does fiction do for us that fact can’t accomplish? Why on earth would we bother with make believe when we’re quite busy trying to survive the Pleistocene or the election season? Why do we so often prefer fiction to fact?

We don’t just bother with fiction. We crave it, we need it. Every civilization that we have record of told stories. 

There are myths, fairy tales, tall tales, theatre, puppetry, dance, opera, science fiction, romantic fiction, historical fiction. 

It’s everywhere, it’s constant, we are drowning in it, (in a good way) and no other species that we know of does it. So what does it do for us that is so essential to our survival?

In case you can’t tell, this is the science of story portion of our little chat. 

Because there is science to it. So to answer some of the why of it (and to arm all those English Majors with some Thanksgiving small talk), let’s start with evolutionary psychology:

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of Santa Barbra argue that imaginative lives are essential to our humanity. Fiction allows us to weigh indirect evidence, to stimulate our mind virtually, to forecast scenarios and solutions without the risk of living through it. They call this investment in fiction decoupled cognition and it is key. 

Here’s a handy list of what stories offer us in terms of an evolutionary advantage expanded from Daniel Dennet’s The Art Instinct:

  1. Stories provide low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience. You explore the human potential (both heroic, tragic, and comic) without cost. Stories are the ultimate social thought experiment.  
  2. Stories can be richly instructive sources of factual information by teaching in a vivid and memorable manner. We learn lessons together, experience sorrow and joy together. Fiction teaches us real lessons, gathers real wisdom. 
  3. Stories encourage us to explore other points of views, beliefs, motivations, and values. This makes us stronger interpersonal actors, increasing our empathy, understanding, and ability to thrive in our highly social human environment. 

Human beings cannot survive alone. We are an ultra-social species. Things that bond us, unite us, teach us collective values, and tribalize us through shared experience and emotions are good for us. Stories do this. 

Stories gather us not just physically—around a podium or a campfire—but mentally, philosophically, and spiritually as well. Story offers us collective myths, shared ideals, common heroes and villains. This kind of bonding lasts because it perpetuates into future generations and makes us connect the long history of a people, connecting the past, the present and the future. When you see Hamlet, you are seeing the same play watched almost 500 years ago. When you watch Medea, you are watching the same story from a thousand years ago. 

Let us switch to neurology for a moment. Some of you have heard of these remarkable little things called mirror neurons. 

Mirror neurons were discovered in primates in the 1990s from scientists at the University of Parma. Mirror neurons are:

“…a set of neurons in the premotor area of the brain that are activated not only when performing an action oneself, but also while observing someone else perform that action. It is believed mirror neurons increase an individual’s ability to understand the behaviors of others.”

You might recall Hamlet instructing his actor friends that good performance “holds a mirror up to nature”. Well said, Hamlet. Well said. Even Aristotle says that tragedy is the imitation of life.

So, something indicated that these mirror neurons, this sense of imitation, this reflection from one person to another was vibrant and important. We have evolved the sophistication of empathy. E.O. Wilson and other sociobiologists would agree that empathy makes us stronger as a species because acknowledging the experience of others, and actually activating in oneself the feelings of others, allows us to strengthen our social awareness. Comprehension increases cooperation. Cooperation in balance with competition is the core of evolutionary multilevel selection. Cooperation and competition also happens to be at the core of every great story. Those two things are at battle in Hamlet, Oedipus, in Breaking Bad. Every choice the hero makes is a choice between cooperation and competition. There’s a reason for it. 

It’s complex stuff to hone your ability to read people – friends, family, potential mates, and potential enemies. If you can do that well, you’re ahead of the game of survival. Stories give us practice at it. 

To quote Anne Murphy Paul’s article “Your Brain on Fiction”:

“Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions ‘theory of mind’. Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”

But it’s not just the experience of a story as an audience that helps us survive, it’s the ability to craft and tell a story that helps us hone our adaptive advantages. 

Storytelling requires… rehearsal. A plan to kill a mammoth is probably bettered by a little practice. As is a play, a joke, or an epic poem. The ability to rehearse, which activates both premonition and memory, is a fundamental tool for survival. A brain that holds not just the present, but the past and the future as well, is going to be good at planning, executing, and preparing.

But we’re not just rehearsing survival acts, we’re also rehearsing emotions. The Greeks called the climax of a play its catharsis, however the catharsis is not a structural element for the characters to craft that big heroic moment in the play. Catharsis is a term for the audience’s reaction. The Greeks already knew about mirror neurons. In fact, a tragedy is just a vehicle for giving you the weepies at the exact moment when you’re supposed to get them and teaching you a lesson about killing your father and sleeping with your mother. Don’t do it. Catharsis is about engaging the audience, about bringing the audience into the very fabric of storytelling.

Catharsis is why movies make us cry, why we love to hate the villains, why our heart rates pick up when a romantic scene begins. A recent study showed that chimps who have seen a short film only once and were played the film again, were able to anticipate when an exciting scene was about to happen. Their bio indicators picked up before the scene happened.

Our ape ancestors learn from story immediately like we do, feel story like we do, and know story like we do. 

Story is science if you understand that story is one of our survival instincts. Story is biology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, neurology, anthropology.

But I’m not just here to talk about the science of story, I’m here to talk about the stories of science, and how those stories are key to our thriving as a species.

Great Stories Make Great Heroes Make Great Futures

Our heroes are such because they have great stories. They aren’t great because they showed up that way, they’re great because a storyteller crafted the story in such a way to make you believe them, to make you want to see the character succeed or make you delight in their failure.

Scientists make for great heroes because science makes for great drama – especially if you realize that good drama is just life with all the boring bits cut out. 

Structurally, Aristotle would approve of science as story. A great fiction asks for a great hero with a clear goal (ideally with some juicy emotional reason for their obsession). It’s nice if that hero is complicated by some personal flaws, some distractions, and an antagonist that thwarts their efforts (even if the antagonist is the world at large, or a hero that doesn’t believe in themselves).  The hero must try and fail, and try and fail until…the drama converges at a climactic point of great revelation and reversal – and that’s the moment where everything changes for the hero, when something is known that could not be known until that point. If it’s a comedy it ends with dancing and kisses, if it’s a tragedy… well, don’t tell the hero, but if their name is in the title it doesn’t bode well for them. 

Science fits this dramatic structure. The perseverance, the antagonism, the trial and error, and finally a revelation – a eureka – that changes everything. 

But science needs storytellers to tell that to the world and it needs them now more than ever. 

We are in a time when science is attacked by fundamentalist hucksters for its very existence as truth. We must encourage scientists to tell the stories of their work, their inspirations, their journeys. We need stories that can humanize the abstractions of science, stories that can bring humor, nuance and personality to the essential work of truth telling. We need more stories with good heroes and with good science.

But we also need new heroes. 

We need stories where scientists look like what they actually are – varied people, women and men, every race and size and age. 

The science-deniers tell good stories. They bribe their listeners with claims to own morality and ethics. We need more stories that prove that real morality, real ethical behavior, real compassion and goodness and soulfulness works with science to better the real world, not the one trapped behind immovable and inflexible ideas that hold us back.

If you believe in God, you must believe that God gave us science. Thanks, God! 

If you don’t believe in God, science is still there doing its thing. 

I should have mentioned that I’m an atheist. 

I should have mentioned that I’m also a feminist. 

Some of you will have heard of the lack of women characters, women playwrights, and women directors in most theatres across the English speaking world. It’s an idiotic trend that Forward Theatre is valiantly outwitting with their season of all-female-written plays this year. This same statistic for lack of women is in the sciences as well. 

Story and science are the same thing! I told you!

But in both cases, this is something we can do something about. In fact, story can help us reorient science in demanding that it stand up for its women, and science can help us reinvigorate story and provide stories for women and about women that are changing the world. 

It’s why I wrote Silent Sky, a play about Henrietta Leavitt, whose work at the turn of the century basically enabled the likes of Edwin Hubble to measure the universe for the first time in human history. Yeah. Not bad for a woman who, though she was tasked with pouring over photographs of the night sky for decades, was not allowed to use the actual telescope which sat across the lawn from her office because it was for the men. 

Cue loud booing.  

The play is set at the turn of last the century when a debate was raging as to the size of the universe – was it enormous or manageably large? Henrietta’s discovery of a pattern in Cepheid stars that would later become a standard candle for measuring the universe is the beginning of the answer to that question.

Part of the story of science is the story of progress – how does human knowledge evolve – what are the moments of change, of discovery, of propulsion into a new way of knowing?

Now, I don’t want to tell the stories of women just because they are true, or because I should. I want to tell them because I think they are better stories – better because these heroes are doubly tested by bias, dis-invitiation, and outright denial. These are the stories of female scientists, GLBTQ scientists and straight, non-white scientists. Just on pure dramatic potential, those stories are far richer in struggle and thus far greater in triumph. 

Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Alan Turing, George Washington Carver—these scientists and inventors, like so many more, have stories that not only capture the essence of perseverance, innovation, pattern-breaking thought, and  forward thinking, but they have each faced so much against them and proved themselves anyway. That sounds truly heroic to me. 

Yes, we need to be given more examples of female science heroes, yes, we need more about African-American and Hispanic men and women in the sciences. Yes, we absolutely need those stories and I cannot wait to see them. But we cannot manifest a better future until we start seeing it around us, until all of us see stories that not only reflect ourselves and the world we live in, but project a better world, a more inclusive and supportive world, a world where anyone, based on their mind and merit, can be a scientist. Stories can help that. If Indiana Jones can do it for archaeology, then we can do it for astronomy, medicine, engineering, and math. If science aims to deepen our knowledge of the world and potentially innovate ways to make it better for human survival and thriving… then it needs story’s help. 

Why Science and Story Need Each other and We Need them BOTH

Fact and fiction need each other. We are a species that has evolved to excel at both. We are explorers, spelunkers, provers and disprovers. 

But we are also fantasizers, mythologizers, fabulists and minstrels. 

No other species, that we can tell, does either, or certainly not as well as we do.

Science has methods to make sure that what we say is true is true. I like this about science. It doesn’t let you make things up.  

Art has methods for truth-telling too, but one of our secrets is… we don’t actually need fact to make something true. Science rather requires it. Story? Nope. Fiction is a falsity that tells the truth. And often, because it’s false, because it’s impossible, we can tell a truer thing—emotionally truer, philosophically truer. We feel real disgust at Oedipus’s incest, real thrill at Macbeth’s conniving and battling, real anticipation and strange sorrow at Walter White’s fall. 

The impossibilities of fiction complement the realities of science. Both can shock us, move us, inspire us. 

Fiction sets our minds to not only imagine the impossible, but to explore it. Impossibility reminds us how often our paradigms have shifted under our feet and keeps us questioning the world around us, saying wow and why over and over again, as all good scientists should. 

My husband is a microbiologist, though I call him a theoretical biologist. He says that I’m actually the methodical one in the relationship and he is the outlandish creative. And it’s actually true. I think more like an engineer, crafting stories to rise and burst in just the right way to make you feel just the right thing. He thinks more like an artistic visionary, dreaming and imagining and thought experimenting the next steps in our relationship to viruses. 

The truth is that curiosity, investigation, and creativity are required to excel at both science and story. What makes them different from each other, makes the other richer. They complement each other. They need each other.

We need fiction like we need fact. We need story like we need science. Which is why I love the STEMtoSTEAM advocates that add Art’s A to STEM’s Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math. 

Noble Prize winning Chemist Harold Kroto said: “Art and science are intrinsically the same except for one thing. The universe is in control of your science, whether it’s right or wrong, and the public are in control of your art.”

Stories are things shared. Their success, their power and their longevity are determined by you. Science doesn’t actually need your input, it’s totally fine on its own—but story does. You are the final ingredient in a performance, you are the missing element of a story… until you aren’t. 

I’ll end with Anton Chekhov, who besides being one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century, was also a doctor. He said:

 “[T]he sensitivity of the artist may equal the knowledge of the scientist. Both have the same object, nature, and perhaps in time it will be possible for them to link together in a great and marvelous force which at present is hard to imagine.”

  • For the wonder of each hour, 
  • of the day and of the night, 
  • science’s truth and story’s power
  • make us stronger, braver, bright. 
  • Minds and hearts to thee we raise
  • This our hymn of nature’s praise. 
  • For The Wonder PDF