The Learn’d Litterateur

person laying on sofa while reading book

Intelligence and Intuition

In an episode of StarTalk Radio titled “The Power of Storytelling, with Salman Rushdie,” host (and astrophysicist) Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks with literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall about the evolution and science of storytelling. And, as the title suggests, Tyson also interlaces this discussion with clips of a previous discussion he’s had with world-renowned novelist Salman Rushdie.

In the opening segment of the show, Tyson and Gottschall discuss the tumultuous relationship between science and art. Gottschall says, “We think of science and art as sort of binary categories… but they seem to be motivated by pretty similar goals… they’re both after deep durable and artful insight into what it means to be human.” He goes on to add that both science and art “are pursuing truth and they both say so all the time.”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer

It is this pursuit of truth that directs the conversation toward Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and how it relates to the rules of storytelling. Author Salman Rushdie clarifies that this scientific principle is not saying everything is uncertain but that the theory is all about measuring the degree of uncertainty. This idea, in turn, is quite similar to the craft of storytelling in that the writer must know the degree to which he/she can manipulate what is possible in relation to what isn’t physically possible but still believable–at least in relation to the story’s world.

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

Gottschall explains these worlds further by defining storytelling as “an ancient form of virtual reality simulations.” So, to the question of whether or not dragons (and any fantastical element) are acceptable in a narrative, Gottschall replies, “As long as it’s consistent with the rules of that story world, it’s fine.”

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

The conversation between Tyson and Gottschall moves fluidly into the utilitarian roles of storytelling with Gottschall describing stories as “humanity’s first great technology for storing vital cultural information, freezing it in the amber in the story, and being able to make it transmissible across generations.” He goes on to add that “[a] story is, above all, a meaningful structuring of information… We have trouble tolerating incoherence and chaos. And story [is] how we convert it to something orderly and comforting.”

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,

Naturally, this idea of stories being man’s way of making sense of the incoherence and chaos in our world brings the discussion to thoughts on religion and spirituality. Beyond the utilitarian role of storytelling, Rushdie touches on man’s perspective of himself as storyteller: “We have a sense of ourselves which is more than just… skin and bone… and I don’t think you have to be religious or supernaturally inclined to think that. And I think that imaginative, creative side of us–the side of us which is not contained in our physicality… is something which literature has always explored.”

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

With Rushdie’s respectable take on storytelling outside the confines of religion or spirituality, Gottschall does remind the audience that “[r]eligion is probably the ultimate expression of story’s dominion over the human mind.” And, to this point, Tyson offers up a pointed question that is at the root of all stories categorized under religion and myth:

At what point do you say this is the reality of how you think and feel because it taps something deeply spiritual that is fundamentally in our DNA– and at what point are you saying this is another tool to tell a cool story that where the point is not the truth of the story but the message and the morality of the consequences to the characters?

To this question, Gotschall argues (or reminds us) that stories can hold incredible power over our cognitive abilities, which can be beneficial as well as detrimental for an individual and society. Narratives don’t hold because they’re necessarily true. They hold because they’re believable.

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself

To this idea, the discussion takes a final shift to the current issues surrounding today’s creation of and receptivity to false narratives. Gotschall argues that it’s incredibly difficult for humans to decipher fact from fiction, claiming “we’d like to think we form our narratives out of fact, but I think it’s truer to say that we have our pre-existing narratives and we let those narratives choose and shape the facts that we’re going to believe in.” Gottschall goes on further claiming that there is no data to suggest we can easily be argued out of our beliefs which are rooted in a good story; rather, the only way to beat a bad story is with a better story.

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

To this point, Tyson offers up his closing thoughts in relation to the role storytelling plays in the construction and deconstruction of civilizations: “So quite the contrary to my thoughts growing up that I’m constrained as a scientist and the artist has no limits. Maybe it is the universe that has no limits and it is the artist that is constrained.”

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

faberClub Discussion

  • While the primary topic at hand pertains to a brilliant discussion between an astrophysicist (Neil deGrasse Tyson), literary scholar (Professor Jonathan Gottschall), and novelist (Salman Rushdie), there is also an explicitly implicit play on Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” What is the point of the poem in relation to the point of the podcast?
  • With the rise of data science, society is arguably becoming obsessed with analytics; it’s becoming our main source in the decision-making process of almost everything. What are the benefits and caveats to interpreting everything through quantitative data?


deGrasse Tyson, N. (14 September 2018) “The Power of Storytelling, with Salman Rushdie.” StarTalk Radio

Whitman, W. (1865) “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” Poets.Org


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