Friday, October 13, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, Part Four.

Scientific presentations already follow a narrative format: the introduction sets up the problem, the methods and results sections work through it, and the discussion (or conclusions) resolves the problem. Two consequences of the narrative structure in scientific papers are:

  • Everyone knows the materials and methods section is the boring part of the story. In many journals, it either appears in smaller print, or as an online supplement.
  • Null results—that is, when the hypothesis is not confirmed—seldom get published. Narratives they may be, but not very good ones. But, as Stuart Firestein explains in Failure: Why Science is So Successful, this is very unfortunate, because the null results of one investigator or team can, when read by another team, save them a lot of wasted time and expense. The second team can, by studying the null results, either give up while they have time, or devise a better method. Failures, null results, are as much a part of the narrative as the protagonist’s setbacks are part of the hero’s tale.


This happens a lot in literature. People like stories that have happy endings, or are at least resolved at the end. A story is supposed to make sense, even if the world does not. In this way, a story can help us understand the world, or at least accept it, a little better. Only in rare instances is a happy ending actually required: the four damsels and three swains agreed on the happy-ending rule in Boccaccio’s Decameron, but this is unusual. Even in tragedies, things get resolved: at the end of Hamlet, we find that things really were rotten in the state of Denmark.

(Joke intermission. In a Russian tragedy, everybody dies; in a Russian comedy, everybody dies happy.)

Music also follows a narrative structure. Music definitely follows a narrative arc. In fact, it can be arcs within arcs. Most musical pieces follow the “ABA form” or “sonata form,” as I learned it in music theory class in 1975. Introduction of one or more themes; Development of interacting themes; then Recapitulation (recap) of the triumphant, modified theme or themes. You find this in nearly all classical music that people like to listen to. The theme-and-variations form, and the verses-and-refrains form, are variations of this structure. Frequently, the development is in the relative minor (if the introduction is in major), as in A minor following C major; or the other way round.

In symphonies, each movement usually has an ABA form. The first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony has dramatic themes in the introduction, then a development that builds up tension. That is an understatement. At the end of the development, there is an extremely strident chord repeated thirty-six times. Just before you scream, the recap begins. This symphony has such a powerful narrative structure that a Tulsa audience of hundreds listened to the conductor give an hour-long lecture about it before performing the symphony. The first movement is so exhausting that Mahler wrote in a three-minute relaxation period before the second movement. The conductor duly sat down on his podium as if he had just wrestled a Viking. Now that’s a story.

Many classical symphonies follow a narrative structure in their (usually four) movements, with an ABA form within each movement. The first movement is an introduction. The second movement is often slow and thoughtful. The third movement is often lively and everybody looks forward to it. The fourth movement is a resolution and frequently features the return of the original theme. The fourth movement, or any other movement, can also have a coda, which is a big bang ending that extends past the resolution of the theme. One of the most famous codas is at the end of the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Just when you think you have heard the final notes, along comes this surprising coda. This symphonic movement has such an obvious narrative structure that musical humorist Peter Schickele applied a football-game-style commentary to it.

Mozart was a master of musical narrative structure. Mozart was unrivalled in the way he made the horizontal (tune) and vertical (chord) structures work together perfectly, with seeming effortlessness, as in the Gran Partita.

Sometimes the narrative form in music is completely overt. Each of Antonín Dvořák’s symphonic poems (such as The Water Sprite, The Golden Loom, and The Wild Dove) tells an intricate folk tale, usually grisly. I love them!

The first chapter of Genesis is a song. It has six stanzas for the six days of creation. Each stanza ends with a refrain, “and there was evening, and there was morning, another day.” Creationists, by forcing it into a literal meaning, have killed its beauty. I even rewrote Genesis 1 into a form that fit the tune of Oh What a Beautiful Mornin.’ (“The creation of Earth is like music, the creation of Earth is like music...” and “It’s such a beautiful cosmos, you’d better keep it that way.”)

The middle of the twentieth century was a time of embarrassment for classical music. Composers, usually working on university faculties (hence this music is sometimes called “academic”, suitable only for study and not for enjoyment) and having very few listeners, wrote music that was deliberately formless and void with darkness over the face of the deep, as in Genesis 1:2. In most cases they didn’t even have tunes. Students, including me, were made to pretend to like them. I could list some of the pieces and composers, but you almost certainly have never heard of them. They have become extinct, except when some musicians drag out the fossils and play them for audiences that endure them. Nobody goes around humming them. Today much of that pretense has been abandoned in schools of music. These pieces of “academic” music just leave the listener feeling confused. Music does not have to end with a bang, but it should end at some sensible spot. This is why most people, in thinking about the early twentieth century, can name only composers like Hindemith, Gershwin, and Joplin, who wrote tunes. What’s there not to like about the March at the end of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses? But “academic” composers looked down on Hindemith, especially since he insisted on sending every movement on a nice chord.

Science is stories. Literature is stories. Music is stories. We cannot not think in stories. We cannot not feel in stories.

This is only one reason that the vast story of evolution resonates less with the human spirit than does creationism. Evolution does not have a narrative arc. I tried to give it one in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, but it just didn’t match up to Genesis 1 or to Adam and Eve (Genesis 2). Ursula Goodenough tried it too, with even less success than I.

Science needs as much interesting narrative as it can get, but not at the expense of reality. I am particularly annoyed by the sound bite at the beginning of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, in which a woman says, “We have to believe in impossible things.” No, we don’t, not even (as Lewis Carroll wrote) five impossible things before breakfast. If we let the narrative dominate, then science is as useless to us as religion. This is not, however, likely to happen.

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