SCRAP Reading Group, Week 31: Science Storytelling

For our reading group meet-up last week, Dave Blaine decided we would try something a bit different. Instead of our usual assigned readings, he suggested a viewing instead. His aim was for us to discuss storytelling in archaeology and all the baggage that comes with it. The video consisted of a debate all about science storytelling from the USA Origins Project.

ASU Origins Project. (2013). The Storytelling of Science. Black Chalk Productions. Retrieved from:


Physicist Lawrence Krauss founded the Origins Project at Arizona State University in 2009. The project’s purpose was to help bridge the gap between some of the greatest scientific minds in the world and the general public. The 2013 seminar focused on the science of storytelling and the storytelling of science. Boasting noteworthy panellists Tracy Day (Producer, CEO and Founder of the World Science Festival), Brian Greene (Theoretical Physicist and Mathematician), Ira Flatow (Radio and Television Journalist, Host of Science Friday), Neil deGrasse Tyson (Astrophysicist, Planetary Scientist, Co-host of StarTalk Radio), Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary Biologist), Bill Nye (Mechanical Engineer, Television Presenter, CEO of The Planetary Society), and Neal Stephenson (Hugo Award-winning Speculative Fiction Writer).

In the first part of the seminar, each panellist presented a short anecdote about their research interests or the origins of their fascination with scientific inquiry. And during the intermission, audience members were able to submit questions for the panellists, driving lively discussions. Ultimately the presentation served as a showcase in which each of the panellists demonstrated in a personal way how they conveyed the excitement of science and the importance of helping promote a public understanding of science.

This is all well and good, but what does any of this have to do with archaeology?

Discussion Questions:

  1. First off, in the light of the many stories presented, the vastly, even wildly different personalities and styles, if you watched all the stories in the seminar, which was your favourite? If instead you picked and chose, what informed your choice? Was it personality, celebrity, subject matter?
  2. I’d love to know what your experiences have been of storytelling – effective or otherwise – in your fields of archaeological study? What made them effective… or otherwise? And was it a story that got into this field in the first place?
  3. In Tyson’s story he talks about accuracy, and the tools available to him and his colleagues to capture accurate data. What he asks from the artist is whatever it was that the discoveries from that data felt like. I tend to agree with this position. It seems to me that while there is certainly a place for good journalistic and scientific reportage, these efforts are not necessarily storytelling because storytelling is a more personal and subjective thing. Thoughts?
  4. Archaeological research frequently brings us into contact and interaction with other peoples and cultures in other places. It isn’t lost on me that any story I may tell is inescapably going to be my own. How do we consider the implications of that to both storyteller and subject? I’ve considered this from the perspective of a photographer. What about you as professional scholars?