If you heard a story last week on NPR’s “Here and Now” about a new kind of nuclear reactor or perhaps remember a recent piece on PRI’s “The World” about the death of the word “uh,” you’ve encountered the work of Ari Daniel Shapiro, a scientist turned science storyteller.
Shapiro, who goes by Ari Daniel professionally to avoid confusion with the other Ari Shapiro on public radio, earned a Ph.D in biological oceanography from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution but realized he didn’t want to continue doing research. Instead, he now works as a science journalist for public radio and NOVA and also hosts and produces the Boston branch of Story Collider, a live event and podcast where people present personal stories about science.
After a talk on the Harvard campus, he stopped by the Nieman Foundation to chat about the world of science narrative. An edited conversation follows:
You’ve spoken about the need to tell stories that include a thread of hope, especially in science journalism. Can you elaborate on that?
I feel very strongly that one of my roles as a science journalist is to achieve science literacy, is to help educate the public about science. I think that sometimes people have a kind of automatic response to science or to math where when they know that’s the topic coming, they shut down for a variety of reasons.
I think it’s important that I come up with strategies to help circumvent that shutting down. I speak specifically around the notion of stories around the environment or climate change. I think one reason why people would shut down is if they think that they’ve heard the story before, or that by listening to the story, nothing’s really going to get better.
I’m not saying that you delete the reality, but I think it’s about how you contextualize it. I think that it’s so important to show stories that have hopeful threads in them… It’s not like all the stories have that, but that’s one thought for how to create an entry point.
I think it’s just who I am. I try to find ways of adding positive sparks to narrative, to life.
What are some of the other challenges of doing science narrative and how do you address them?
I feel like one role I have when I’m doing my job is to empower my interviewee to participate in the story… During an interview, if someone gives me an answer that I know is not usable, I work really hard during the course of the interview to get — I want them to be a participant in the story. If we’ve taken the time to set this up and I’m spending all this time, I want them to be on tape in the story.
I think it creates a better radio piece when I can find this other angle in. Sometimes I’ll know we’ll have the science done, but there’s no story yet. Then I go around poking a bit.
I did an interview just last week about a new startup that’s experimenting with a different kind of nuclear reactor, and they’re hoping to make clean, safe, and very efficient nuclear energy, environmentally friendly at that. One of the scientists I interviewed was speaking in incredibly dense language.
That’s a big challenge. Because scientists can feel safe around vocabulary and sentence constructions that they write and that they express their technical ideas in, which don’t work on the radio. As he’s talking, I know it’s not going to work… I forget what I said, but it was something like, “I don’t understand that. That’s way too technical.” Basically, “What’s happening here? What in general?”
Then he gave it. He was like, “I want to help make clean, safe, energy.” Then, the young woman who started, co-founded the company said, “And save the world.”
That’s a good thing that I can use. They’ll both be in the piece.
How do you deal with story fatigue, especially when it’s regarding an important issue that should be talked about and reported on?
I try to be a bit of a proxy for the audience. Because I sometimes feel fatigue with this subject. The question is how do I take a story and make it feel different?
One of my editors asked me recently to find stories about climate change that were positive. I find climate change really tough. It’s the sort of thing where I have to find the right in. Someone had suggested a story that was taking place out in Arizona, in Tempe. Even going into it, I wasn’t feeling thrilled about it.
It’s about a team of people that are there who are working on carbon capture, coming up with a material that will pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that they can then use to sequester somewhere else.
With this one, during the interview I found myself feeling really hopeful. Like, buoyant by the possibility of what they were suggesting… I felt the fatigue drift away. That’s an example.
I think part of it is I spend a lot of time just looking for the stories that are not going to feel fatiguing. If they do, then trying to find a different angle or a different topic or a way to address it. Ultimately I think I try to shed that. I try to make sure I don’t feel fatigued by it, and if I feel excited, then hopefully I can convey that excitement in the piece.
You’re the Boston producer of Story Collider, a live show and podcast that presents stories about science. What role do you think live events now play in narrative and storytelling? How is it similar or different from your other work?
They’re all variations on a theme. What’s different is that it’s live and you can rehearse…The other producer on the show and I work with the storytellers in advance to get them ready for the big night. In some ways, it’s a bit like working through drafts of a radio piece.
The live storytelling has this wild element to it, which I think makes it a kind of — what’s the right word? It makes the experience, brings it alive and makes it electric.
… The sense of it feeling real and visceral and raw — I think there are ways of doing that with radio. Each provides its own magic. The story, the live storytelling is, it’s a real thrill. To be up there and to have such a positive vibe in the room, people have come out to hear people talk about science. It’s like a social night out. It’s really gratifying.
What else would you want to include or emphasize in a discussion of storytelling, particularly science storytelling?
I think that ultimately what drives many, many scientists is this curiosity that remained active from when they were kids. Many kids are scientists just naturally. They don’t take things for granted and they’re asking why and how about everything. Scientists just pull that forward.
Science can be accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. Because I think that questioning and curiosity is inherent to the human condition. People can tap into that. As a reporter, you can tap into that to hopefully reawaken that sense of questioning.
That’s why I don’t like to think about dumbing something down. I think people can handle complexity. Because I think people are curious beings somewhere inside.