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Scientists as Storytellers

Alan Alda: As you talk, you have many references from literature that you draw on, and a lot of jokes I hear, which is…

Gerry Edelman: There has to be some alleviation.

Alan Alda: I get the impression it's not just a vacation you take, it's the way you think.

photo of gerry edelman
Edelman finds science "beautifully weird"  

Gerry Edelman: You know, Alan, you have the skill of a psychoanalyst. I hope you don't take that as an insult. You've drawn me out, I need to tell you. I am interested in science for three reasons. The first is, it's general, the laws apply everywhere. That was Galileo's extraordinary insight, and Newton's behind that, and finally, with Einstein it's unbelievable. Second of all, it's predictive, at least in some of the occasions, not all, but that's a very satisfactory thing. And finally, sometimes it's beautifully weird. It's something you never thought of. But, you know, there's one thing about this. In the aim for generality, you lose the particular individualistic flavor that makes life particularly what it is. And there's nothing like a story, and a funny story, because having a funny story really doesn't rest in the punch line, it rests in the weird individuality of the build up. Now, maybe you don't agree…

Alan Alda: Oh, no, the front part of a joke is the most neglected part. It's the only part that makes it interesting.

Gerry Edelman: So, you know, anecdote and narration is what it means to be human, is to do an extraordinary thing called science.

Alan Alda: It's very interesting that, here you are, spearheading this place that looks so far into the future and places such a high priority on theory, and yet, you've told me a couple of times today that you're the son of a doctor that listened to the particular story of his patients.

Gerry Edelman: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Alan Alda: And that seems to have made a big impression on you.

"Everything, in my opinion, is a story."

Gerry Edelman: Well, it has, because, in fact, everything, in my opinion, is a story. Let's try cosmology. You can calculate all you want about black holes and the big bang and what have you, but you still have to tell the story, even if you weren't there. There is no other way that I know of, and I think there's that balance between the two, that once language comes, there is a whole universe of possibility, including science itself, but they don't sit exactly on top of each other.

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