Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

08 OCTOBER, 2013

Alan Lightman on Science, Genius, and Common Sense

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A homemade rocket, a Feynman fiasco, and why genius and common sense don’t always coexist.

Physicist Alan Lightman is one of the finest essayists writing today, the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT, and the celebrated author of both nonfiction and novels, including the excellent Einstein’s Dreams. At a special staging of the invariably wonderful science storytelling event StoryCollider for a recent event at MIT, Alan told a magnificent story about building a rocket from scratch at age thirteen, working with the great Richard Feynman as a grad student at CalTech, and partaking in a series of unfortunate events involving an amputee lizard astronaut, a monumental black hole discovery that perished on a black board, and a Feynman-Hawking rivalry decided by a cleaning lady. Miraculously, it all makes sense — more than that, Alan’s masterful storytelling leaves you with an ever-deeper awareness that the essence of science is not equations and a profound understanding of true science as necessitating more than meticulous calculations to thrive, to endure, and to matter. Please enjoy:

At the MIT event, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Alan. Mesmerized by his story, I asked him whether he had any visual ephemera immortalizing his teenage rocket. Though his original diagram was lost, Alan was kind enough to recreate it and dig out the original 1962 photograph of his finished makeshift rocket, shared here for our collective enjoyment:

Alan’s new book, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, comes out in early 2014 — start sharpening your neurons. Meanwhile, can join me in supporting the wonderful StoryCollider here.

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28 AUGUST, 2013

The Shape of Spectacular Speech: An Infographic Analysis of What Made MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Great

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The poetics of presenting, or why beautiful metaphors are better than beautiful slides.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech before 250,000 civil rights supporters. It would go on to reverberate through the nation, reaching millions more, and through history, inspiring generations and forever changing the course of culture. But how can sixteen minutes of human speech have the power to move millions and steer history?

That’s exactly what presentation design guru Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences (public library), probes as she analyzes the shape of Dr. King’s speech and what made it so monumentally impactful — a modern-day, infographic-powered version of Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic lecture on the shapes of stories exploring oration rather than narrative.

Duarte notes the Dr. King spoke in short bursts more reminiscent of poetry than of long-winded lecture-speak and highlights his most powerful rhetorical devices — repetition, metaphors, visual words, references to political documents, citations from sacred texts and spiritual songs — in a fascinating visualization of the speech, demonstrating how it embodies the core principles of her book.

Duarte followed up Resonate with Harvard Business Review’s HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, offering more specific strategies for honing the power of presentation, where she places special emphasis on the far-reaching power of metaphor and writes:

Metaphors are a powerful literary device. In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, about 20% of what he said was metaphorical. For example, he likened his lack of freedom to a bad check that America has given the Negro people … a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'” King introduced his metaphor three minutes into his 16-minute talk, and it was the first time the audience roared and clapped.

Pair with five things every presenter should know about people and some timeless advice on how to give a great presentation.

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28 JANUARY, 2013

Science, Storytelling, and “Gut Churn”: Jad Abumrad on the Secrets of Creative Success

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On diving head-first into the unknown.

Since 2004, Radiolab has been sparking a singular kind of magic at the intersection of science and storytelling, redefining not only public radio but also the “role of scientific culture in modern society,” to borrow Richard Feynman’s words.

In this fantastic talk from The 99% Conference, Radiolab mastermind and MacArthur genius Jad Abumrad takes us behind the scenes to explore the tribulations and triumphs of building a novel paradigm from the ground up.

At the heart of it, he argues, is the notion of the “gut churn” — that scrambly, uncomfortable, anxious fight-or-flight feeling that comes with doing something uncontrollably new that could go uncontrollably wrong, at once an intensified version of Rilke’s comfortably philosophical notion of living the questions and a living testament to the idea that uncertainty is what fuels science.

Countering that — and sustaining the creative spirit through it — is the same kind of intuition about the right direction that guides great scientists. Staying the course requires constant creative rejuvenation — Jad recommends beloved graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s sabbatical strategy.

Listen and enjoy:

To whatever degree Radiolab represents change, we didn’t plan it. I don’t think change can be planned — I think it’s only something that can be recognized after the fact.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for The 99%

Complement with Jad on sound, science, and mystery and his philosophy of “pointing arrows.” Radiolab, like Brain Pickings, is noncommercial and made possible by audience contributions — I proudly make mine monthly. Join me in supporting them with a donation.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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