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Scientists and the art of telling a story

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    Well over a decade ago I had the opportunity to meet Jessica Fox, a vibrant, 25 year old storyteller employed by . . .  NASA!

    I could imagine storytellers maybe working for the National Endowment for the Humanities or the National Endowment for the Arts, but NASA? I think of the space agency as all science, engineering, and slide rules (okay – the slide rules reference dates me). But as Jessica explained, scientists, astronauts, engineers, all have no problem communicating with each other, but fell short when conveying to the public what they were working on, the gains NASA had made, and the benefit of space explorations for those of us on Earth, which is done through narrative, not trigonometry. So part of her job consisted in training NASA employees in the basics of storytelling, so that they could get the public to understand what they are doing.

    (The best example of this in my mind was the narrative that developed around the split-second timing required to land the NASA rover Curiosity on Mars in 2012 – a hero’s journey on many levels that captured the public imagination).

    This comes to my mind on reading this week’s Campbell in Culture entry on JCF’s home page, about “Using Campbell in Scientific Storytelling.” The Hero’s Journey trajectory has a role to play in conveying human knowledge beyond just the humanities.

    Jessica Fox bookcover

    Jessica, by the way, took a page from Campbell and left NASA to embark on her own journey, which led to her finding the love of her life in a well-stocked bookshop in remote Wigtown, Scotland – an adventure she recounts in her book, Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets: A Real-Life Scottish Fairy Tale.


      Hi Stephen,

      I finally got a sense how to start this conversation after your initial tribute. Being educated with technical matters, (said also else on this platform) with some insights in general scientific issues, discoveries, over the limit relativity and over the edge quantum mechanics (just basics folks, no magical/mathematical tricks), I experience this immense surfaced knowledge, in scientific prose, as the most revelating ever happened in my concious life. There is more story in science to be told, then ever was, is and will be told in myth. Comparable with the inbalance of welth and possession, knowledge is uneven distributed in time and locality. Translating will be difficult. The saying, don’t spoil a good story with facts, prooves a serious mark (‘border area’) between the two realms. From the strict side, I want to tell what it is; from the fluid side, I want to tell what it appears. You like the latter anyhow, because it is more human, less robotic/algorithmic.

      NASA has accomplished a step beyond a fundamental threshold which encapsulated mankind up to 1969 when Armstrong put his feet on the moon. Diana (or better: Selene) got a dusty shoe in her face, and the strict hurrayed, but the fluids wept. In those recent decades, the promise of science would lead mankind to an – other paradise finally, not bound by assumptions, belief and absolute subjugation. This fruit is shaken from the tree and rots on the ground, distrusted by the common man now.

      This is the ground for the next episode of stories to be told, about the powers of magicians who touched the moon, the sun, the planets and the stars. Who could create not iron out of rocks but raw energy out of the heaviest metals or water. Nonhumans with nonhuman forms replacing true living mankind and our fellow natural creatures. Once you know it, you don’t want to downgrade it to a lower level, leaving out the essential parts so others may get a grasp. When you don’t, you’re going to upgrade it with known but limited understanding (‘the tradie or the diy’), unaware and distrustful, to an acceptable and reassuring level. Something to believe in, to kneel for, hand on the heart.

      Patterns are clearly reemerging. Sorry I’ve spoiled the story. I know.


      Spoiled the story? Far from it, Mars – it’s a fine line to walk, but you seem to have the balancing act down.

      Sometimes the Hollywood imagineers do get it right. Plenty of engineering and science  conveyed in the cinematic renderings of Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures, couched within the framework of the hero journey. Indeed, that’s what a large part of Jessica’s job with NASA entailed – not asking astronomers, physicists, engineers, and astronauts to dumb down the science, but advising them on how to place it within a compelling, satisfying narrative  . . .


        I’m currently diving into the Sumer history: why there, why then, why them. Coincidence of facts yielding in the first civilisation? That’s acadamic, not prose. The questions stands: why there, then, them? What moved? What… what is the proper question? (spoiler: when you ask the right question, the answer is folded into it)

        The first promise, paradise (sanskrit ‘para’ ‘da-ise’): walled garden, the wild and tame in peace together, lamb and lion in love, unaware, motionless as the waters in the sweet pond, rippleless, mirroring the heavenly air and warming sunlight merging with the submerged nourishing earth in the realm of floating or flying free fish, timeless, the Nirvana (‘non’ – ‘wind’) mirror. What is the proper question which cast the hubris astray, whipped out of this desert divided searching, longing, yearning, hungry, theethless, pulling possessions aimlessly over the Hessenway, the ugliest scar on the surface of mankinds crib. All sick, all limb, all death. Sumer. What happened really? We looked up…? We awoke? Again a gain. From children of mud to masters of the world.

        Every creation has to be framed to have it transportable. The painter smashes paint on the canvas, the composer throws notes on the score, the sculptor subtracts andor adds matter to the form, static or dynamic. Then tamed with a collar to freeze it on a wall, a blackwhite legion in harmony, the statue in its space. Without frame no transportation, vulnarable, floating or flying like the free fish. Downstream goes the dead fish, up the promise. I kiss the fish and ask it, what is the question? Release me! From what? To where? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

        Look up. Do not cast yourself downward to the dirt you’re made of. That’s past. That’s dead. Selene (the moon), Diana’s counter in heaven, countered by Hekate twisted in the twisted downdeep roots, three separated faces of the same coincidence is now in view, a promise fierce and fury to handle, needs time, needs temper. Start your witch-broom and head for the sky. It’s endless, all knowing, immortal.

        I think this is what you mean Stephen? Then, I better write my story not in dutch proper…


        I am enjoying your “spoilers,” pulling us up out of the dirt and heavenward. Might also shed some light on your cyber-moniker: could be referring to a deity, or could just be the next step out into wide open spaces for humanity . . .


          Yes, that’s the temptation, the challance and horror simultaniously, to revelate the unknown to the unknownebles (not proper english, but not as ignorant, unaware, unwise or ungifted, so no fitting transcribtion possible, just the unknown, that void). In a good story, this revelation is captured, molded or framed into a digestible amount and texture. And there, into that very prolongued moment, is this deity, in the wider open space: “The overheated angel by love of its deity above creation is frozen in magma cast asunder in unbroken chains of time no release to await when days shiver contraction giving birth dying to timeless paradise again.” Such stories are everlasting yet hard to rephrase in contemporain fashion.


            Biblical parallels in Sumerian literature are lots of fun to explore.
            Ur gotta go !!!
            Egypt ? Just passing through !!!
            Can’t Babel on …
            Gotta love a good a priori prototypical antecedent.
            When reed touched mud.
            Writing the noblest of technologies !!!
            Then reflection there on …
            An exact and opposite action …


              I would like to recommend to all about stories, myth and psychology:

              Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, by Wolkstein and Kramer (9780060908546).



              My Mother would have loved this!

              She taught astronomy at Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta and was there in 1969 when NBC came down to cover Apollo 11.

              Mother remembered seeing the lunar module through the big telescope at Fernbank. And she always loved or had a resonance with the moon…

              (the symbolic Diana energy)

              There are many other stories from this time in her life, which she shared with me…and in tradition of passing down tales orally…they stuck.

              There was a poetry in them!

              (not that I don’t have my own stories. I certainly do. Grin)

              It is strange to some of my contemporaries, that I find such an affinity with stories before my time, especially as I went in a different path than my Mother. But she completely supported my journey.

              My Mother continued to teach astronomy, physics and earth science at different high schools in the 60s.

              (She also worked on computer punch cards at Lockheed where she met my Dad.)

              In the 70s for a year, they both taught at the NC Cherokee Reservation.

              Mother Astronomy and Dad high school math.

              Will try to stray back upon the path

              since it is tempting to go off into the weeds on tangents of other tales I LOVE  (ie Dad math, calculus, certified VW mechanic, lover of planes and occasional tuner of tap shoes! Or the story he read to one of his classes.)

              Back to Mother’s story.

              Mother continued to teach astronomy and give lectures on and off after I was born. She taught and lectured at schools, colleges and rotary clubs. And she had a small non for profit observatory built.

              (She also loved J. Campbell.)

              I remember open nights with friends family and school groups, who came to see an eclipse of the moon.

              Before that and the light pollution, one went down to a darker field in town and she set up a Star Party for Halley’s Comet along with other astronomy enthusiasts.

              And after…an Astrophotographer friend would visit some nights. They took a photo of the moon together. And he took photos of the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, and the Rosette Nebula.

              As for the science, my Mother told me of her experience working with one of the head astronomers at Fernbank. They measured Cepheid variables.
              She showed me those charts decades later.

              (Her other passion was art: paintings, portraits and sketches and indeed some of those paintings depicted the starry heavens, which she loved.)

              She had the knowledge of Newtonian Physics and the other measurements and attributes of space. But just like the young woman you mention Stephen, the human connection was just as important to my Mother. She loved the experience of viewing the heavens and how that resonates in the heart…the way a finely tuned telescope can reveal the depth and magnitude of objects just barely visible to the naked eye, whether it’s the rings of Saturn or the Orion Nebula.
              I know people, who after having seen those views as children  (and sometimes adults), thanks to my Mother, have never forgotten.
              Their minds were opened to this other vastness and beauty wheeling above our heads.
              There was a Rilke poem Mother loved, which began, “I have faith in nights.”

              This was it exactly!

              How could one not feel a transcendent experience?

              The days of our observatory were like a fable within our life experience. But would be a tale for another time.

              I went on in dance and poetry and later music…but can remember those cold, clear nights as my Mother pointed out different constellations or as we watched a rain of meteors sometimes bright as car head lamps occasionally hissing through the atmosphere like small dragons.
              We would bundle up in winter clothes and blankets and sit outside holding hot chocolate or coffee in thermal mugs. And stay ‘til sunrise.

              As for those poetic stories, which surround the time before and during Apollo 11…cannot forget them either,(maybe because it was also the time my parents met.)

              It might begin once upon a time, there was a young woman who loved the stars, art and horses. She drove her Little Black VW bug to college (Agnes Scott.) The leaves were turning red and the Beatles’ “Michelle,” came on the radio…(and this would open into all those other stories from her astronomy Prof. to hearing Robert Frost and briefly shaking hands with MLK, when both men came to her college. (Not to mention hearing a Beatles bootleg.) But all would lead to Fernbank and meeting my Dad.
              The rest is history.

              So when I bundle up in winter coat and blankets and stay out from midnight until sunrise on a cold November night and count the Leonids (not as spectacular as the Fall of ‘98) but still stunningly beautiful,

              I think of my Mother (and Dad) and raise my thermal mug of hot chocolate or coffee to the starry heavens and the music of the spheres.








              What great memories of your parents, sunbug, especially your mother’s love of science. Stories are so much a part of teaching, no matter the subject (even science, and math); thanks for sharing your stories.

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