Down to Earth

Posted by Michael on March 8, 2013

By Melissae Fellet

Atoms and molecules help me understand how the natural world works. When I put my feet on a sturdy wood table, I see rigid sugar fibers reinforcing the walls of the cells in the wood. I feel the floppy carbon chains in a crinkly plastic bag and the stiff carbon rings that strengthen the plastic lenses in my glasses. But the most beautiful atoms in the world, however, are those I see in my body, and in yours, because those atoms once came from the same place: the stars.

That we are all star stuff is a universal truth. A picture above my desk reminds me of that truth and reminds me wonder and connection as I write.

I realize that this picture -- “We are star stuff” spelled out in the building blocks of proteins --  may not have the same meaning for you as it does for me. That’s why I’m grateful for astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson for sharing the message more eloquently.

With his words set against a backdrop of space and nature pictures, I think it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder and connection.

These two pictures illustrate my current exploration: Big ideas and universal truths capture my imagination through abstractions that might not be as interesting to others. So how can I best share these ideas and be heard?

Through stories. Stories bring the world of star stuff back down to earth. They are inherently concrete, even when addressing lofty topics. Stories involve characters, struggles and resolution. Most importantly, my favorite stories connect with my emotions and allow me to experience a situation rather than just read an explanation of it.

There are many ways to tell stories, and each way has its own strengths. Pictures show a scene. Maps, graphics and timelines can be visual aids for patterns buried in numbers. Radio captures a person’s character and emotions through voice. And books or long articles provide space for interwoven story lines that take the reader on a journey through complexity.  

By publishing on the Internet, writers can use all of these tools for what they do best. Take Snow Fall, a web-only story from the New York Times. It’s a multi-part story about the dangers of backcountry skiing, namely an avalanche. Pictures show the snowy countryside. Videos and slideshows put faces to names in the story, humanizing the characters. And interactive maps summarize a tricky sequence of events in the text that plays out over time and space.

Honestly, I didn’t find this particular story too gripping. But months after it published, I’m still excited about the presentation. The multimedia additions were a natural fit with the text, and that seamless experience pulled me into the story.

It’s difficult to find stories in science policy topics, but it’s not impossible. It’s also extremely important. As we writers and scholars look for stories in the policy, let’s not settle for just finding a narrative. Let’s also think about how to use the variety of storytelling tools to maximize our ability to forge an emotional connection with readers in a story about abstract concepts.