Contributor Ben Ehrlich Reports on Thursday evening’s The Moth: Grey Matter event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.
Sometime after the appearance of language in the species Homo sapiens the first story was told. It happened in a tree (in my imagination). This hypothetical moment would be of the utmost evolutionary importance to some theorists. Storytelling, like the other ancient and universal arts, could be an adaptive trait. (Read 2009 Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories). Or—say Steven Pinker and others—it is a spandrel, an elegant-meaning (if not – sounding) Renaissance term for the triangular space created by the intersection of two arches at a right angle. (Read 1979 S.J. Gould & R.C. Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme”). Now, while I do find this debate to be irresistibly interesting it is simply no substitute for stories themselves. A good story, well-told, remains infinitely more meaningful than the sum of its deconstructed parts. It is all about the sharing of experience. This is the reason I found myself in the packed auditorium at Webster Hall on Thursday night fanning myself with two programs while my knees jutted dangerously into the frontmost aisle. The Moth, a storytelling organization that features competitions in different cities, was hosting a special “mainstage” event for the World Science Festival called “Grey Matter: Stories from the Left and Right.” It was a hot ticket; the line had stretched all the way down 11th street.
The line-up was certainly impressive. Host Mike Birbiglia opened the night with an uproarious story about bladder cancer, a staple from his well-rehearsed stand-up routine. I had heard the story live twice before, and laughed anyway. Good storytelling is always immediate, as there should be attention for nothing else but the words of the teller. Technically, the first performer was Richard Garriott, who—as Mr. Birbiglia quipped—epitomized nerdiness by making a fortune programming video games in order to fund his own trip into space. Unfortunately, Mr. Garriott’s ten-minutes expired before he could relate much about his twelve-day orbit to the audience. Next Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist currently at New York University, delivered a wonderful and well-crafted narrative about Memorial Day in Israel and her father, a Holocaust survivor. Her research with Dr. Elizabeth Phelps and Dr. Joseph LeDoux has focused on painful emotional memories—and the possiblity of disarming them.
Writer Mark Katz told the funniest story of the night, although it had nothing to do with science. Mr. Katz was asked by the Clinton White House to punch up a gala speech for then vice-president Al Gore. He scored a huge hit with a joke that he did not—in fact—write. The infamous joke: “Al Gore is so boring that his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.” (Pause for laughter, it’s quite good). The highlight, however, was learning about the passionate hugging style of our one-time (November 7, 2000 at 8:00pm) president. During another delightful delivery, Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek recounted the controversy he caused by scaring a Long Island banana farmer about potentially apocalyptic “strangelets,” hypothetical particles that may or may not be able to devour the world. This put the Brookhaven particle accelerator in jeopardy and, more importantly, disturbed what should have been an idyllic vacation for Wilczek. It was a thrill to hear the physicist speak publically; he was so clearly brilliant, and as “strange” as those “lets” he spoke of. After hearing Dr. Wilczek speak, I wonder if one must have a memorably idiosyncratic laugh in order to win a Nobel prize. (See also: Kandel, Eric).
The penultimate tale was told with honesty and feeling by the geneticist Kristin Baldwin. She explored the theme of similarity and difference through her relationship with her younger sister, whom she described as her complete opposite. It was a great performance—and courageous—as I do not believe she is an experienced performer. I think that the whole audience appreciated her hilarious recollections of conversations with potential suitors about her livelihood: “Oh, I clone mice and make their brains glow.” Dr. Baldwin, of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, has also collaborated on an art project that uses genetically engineered E. coli bacteria as paint.
The last storyteller was Leonard Mlodinow, the physicist who also wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Macgyver, whose moving account of his own father, a Holocaust survivor, succeeded in affecting perspective. He talked meaningfully about heroism, as well as actions and consequences. At times he was forced to pause and step back, as though at a mental crossing, to let a train of painful memories pass. These were booming and breathtaking silences. For me, this was the height of a great performance. It all ended in applause, of course, because that is the best way to appreciate a good story. As long as we praise art, it should not matter how or why it came to exist. I—for one—would not want to live without it.