Book Review: Houston, We Have a Narrative by Randy Olson

Houston, we have a problem.” This line from Ron Howard’s fiction film about the Apollo 13 space accident needs no introduction. In reality, however, astronaut Jim Lovell made a slightly different report to NASA Mission Control on April 13, 1970: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

So did Hollywood get it wrong? The line in the film is not a verbatim copy of the historical record, but the film version is punchier and more immediate. It’s also the version everyone seems to remember. From the communication perspective, Hollywood got it very right.

Hollywood’s insight into science communication is the subject of Randy Olson’s latest book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. We’ve all been encouraged to tell better stories, but it can be hard to know where to start. Olson might just be the storytelling guide that you’ve been looking for.

Narrative structure is at the core of Olson’s approach to science communication. Many narratives conform to a structure where there is an initial state and things are proceeding as normal, but then there is a problem. Therefore, the protagonist must find a solution. In other words, Houston, only when you have a problem do you have a narrative.

Olson distils this familiar narrative structure into an indispensable three word template: And, But, and Therefore (ABT). The strategy of increasing narrativity by replacing “ands” with “buts” and “therefores” is not Olson’s invention—Olson traces the principle from South Park co-creator Trey Parker back to screenwriting instructor Frank Daniel—but Olson gives the idea new life by reformulating it as an elegant communication tool.

Houston is filled with examples of how the ABT structure and other forms of screenwriting wisdom can be used to enhance your science communication. What’s more, Olson isn’t just talking about communication with the public. Professional communication between scientists is the focus of this book. Not even journal abstracts escape the scrutiny of Olson’s storytelling microscope.

Houston re-treads much of the same territory as Olson’s previous books, Don’t be Such a Scientist and Connection. Indeed, many of the strengths and limitations of Olson’s previous work are also on display here. What distinguishes Houston from Olson’s earlier writing is its explicit focus on science communication. Olson takes care to anticipate and rebut the criticisms that some scientists raise about his approach. In case you’re wondering, using narrative structure doesn’t mean “dumbing down” or misrepresenting your science.

Olson has never been one to pull his punches. Consistent with his previous work, Olson writes in a conversational and irreverent style. The problem is that some of his remarks about academia are so scathing that Olson risks alienating a large part of his target audience.

Olson’s enthusiasm for narrative may also go too far for some readers. Despite stating that narrative is not a panacea, Olson argues that achieving an intuitive understanding of narrative is “the only long term hope for combatting the problems facing scientific research and science communication.” At times, Olson seems to conflate good communication and good narrative structure. Other aspects of communication, such as an awareness of audience, receive limited attention in this book.

Fortunately you don’t need to share Olson’s singular focus on narrative structure to enjoy Houston or benefit from Olson’s storytelling insights. Narrative might not be a panacea, but Olson’s storytelling templates deserve a place in every science communicator’s toolkit.

Book review: Connection – Hollywood storytelling meets critical thinking

Thank you to Jarrod Green for this book review.

Scientists are sometimes criticised for being poor storytellers AND there are calls for more storytelling in science communication, BUT concrete advice about how to actually tell a good story can be hard to find. THEREFORE, Randy Olson, Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo’s Connection is an invaluable read for any science communicator who wants to sharpen their “story sense.”

A focus on storytelling might be off-putting to some. However, this is not a book about creative writing, nor is it trying to transform you into the next Kubrick or the next Dickens. Connection is about using the basic principles of story structure to communicate simply and effectively. As Palermo states, it’s about rendering your “splendid esoteric obscurity” into something engaging for a broad audience.

One of Connection’s key messages is simplicity and it’s hard not to admire the elegance of the ideas on offer here. Connection provides simple and memorable templates for communicating your story in a Word, a Sentence or a Paragraph (the WSP model). Olson’s ABT (And, But and Therefore) template is a particularly noteworthy element of the model. Adapted from the wisdom of South Park co-creator Trey Parker, the ABT template is an indispensable formula for a punchy elevator pitch.

Connection is based on a three-part communication workshop developed by Olson, Barton and Palermo. True to the experience of a workshop, all three authors write in a conversational and accessible style, making Connection an effortless read that doesn’t simply espouse good communication principles but also enacts them.

In the book’s first chapter, Olson provides an overview of the WSP model, which he frequently (and fittingly) conveys through anecdotes and examples. Some utilitarian readers may find the abundance of anecdotes unnecessary, but to feel this way may also be missing the point of a book where story is the foundation of both form and content.

In Connection’s second chapter, Barton applies Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “hero’s journey” to craft stories at the length of a paragraph (or longer). While Barton is not the first to draw upon Campbell’s work, her clear and accessible template for applying the hero’s journey represents a valuable contribution.

Rounding out the trio, Palermo’s chapter discusses the importance of improvisation for communicating on a relatable and emotional level.  Of the three authors, Palermo possibly has the hardest task in translating an improvisation workshop into a book chapter. Nonetheless, Palermo’s section still succeeds as an entertaining demystification of “improv.”Palermo’s insights into listening and openness make improvisation relevant to everyone, not just the theatrically inclined.

There are times where Connection is at risk of overstating (or at least oversimplifying) the case for storytelling. For instance, Olson refers to a functional MRI study as evidence of story’s unique power to communicate. While it may be possible to quibble with such examples, it is really not the point of Connection. If you accept the basic proposition that storytelling is a powerful form of communication, Connection provides you with the tools to make it happen. If you are hoping for a detailed and nuanced account of the science of story, it is probably best to look elsewhere (Olson rightly points to Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal as a good place to start).

Similarly, Connection’s fixation on Hollywood as the epitome of storytelling may rankle some readers, but the intent is not to elevate Hollywood above other traditions of filmmaking or storytelling. As Olson and his co-authors state, it’s more about tapping a source of storytelling expertise. If you want to learn how to craft a compelling story you could do worse than consult an industry whose livelihood depends on spinning a good yarn.

If you have read Olson’s previous book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, you will find some familiar ideas in Connection. However, for the most part, Connection breaks into new territory and is a more focussed and practical book. If you only have time to read one of Olson’s offerings, make it Connection.

Everything about Connection comes in threes. Connection has three authors and three main chapters. It is centrally concerned with three-act story structures and its main ideas are expressed as three letter acronyms (WSP and ABT). So in that spirit, I would like to offer three words of recommendation. If you need a basic toolkit for communicating through story: Read. This. Book.

*Don’t have time read the book? Try Olson’s TEDMED presentation.

Book Review: Genome Generation

By Daniella Goldberg, Gene Genie Media.

This year marks the tenth anniversary since the epic task of sequencing all three billion letters of the human genome. The Genome Generation by Dr Elizabeth Finkel, molecular biologist turned science journalist, reveals the impact of the genome revolution and how it affects everyone in some way, whether it’s predicting your genetic destiny as in the movie Gattaca, designing genetically engineered foods to feed the third world, curing serious genetic diseases or understanding your ancestors.

And even the author found a few surprises when conducting her research. “When I started this book, I thought I knew it all,” says Finkel. “But in the end, nothing that I knew ended up in the book. When relying on media you get a very different view of science than when you drill down asking your own questions.”

Finkel has gathered the latest evidence about the impact of the genome from visiting doctors from hospitals in the developing world, where they are researching the genetics of AIDS-resistance. She also met with farmers and agricultural researchers in developing countries that are desperately in need of sustainable crops to feed the exploding population.

“Writing a book is like a marriage. You have to sustain the passion for a long time and I knew I could do this in three areas, medicine, agriculture and evolution,” says Dr Finkel, worked on the book for three years.

Central to Dr Finkel’s research was her annual visit to Lorne’s scientific conferences in Victoria, where she spoke to and quoted leading scientists and learned the latest findings about the human and other genomes.

“Today we have really moved into a new era and our old paradigms have shifted,” she says. For example, we used to believe that 98.5 per cent of our DNA was ‘junk.’ Now we know most junk DNA is producing RNA and has functions we never would have anticipated, such as acting like proteins or enzymes or even like genes.

Queensland genetics researcher Professor John Mattick was one of the first true believers that junk DNA really has an important function. Today, we have tools to investigate DNA to support this theory, although the verdict is still out on this complex topic.

Another paradigm that has crashed since the human genome was sequenced is the Lamarckian theory. Dr Finkel says that when she first heard of epigenetics studies showing that the environment could impact our genetic program she did not want to write a chapter about it because it went against what she was taught at university.

What is revealed in this book is very compelling and could directly impact the way pregnant mothers behave. Epigenetic researchers have shown that inter-uterine environment may have long terms genetic programming effects on the foetus. For mothers around the world, this type of data could have far reaching implications.

Dr Finkel says she wrote this book to reveal the impact of the human genome, ten years after it was sequenced. Many questions about the human genome still remain unanswered however one fact is clear: the genome is a powerful tool that will impact everyone in some way in their lives.

This is an excellent yarn.. Well worth reading!

Daniella Goldberg, Gene Genie Media.

The Transit of Venus

From Nick Lomb:

The transit of Venus on 6 June 2012 will be the last opportunity for all of us to see this rare and significant astronomical event. It is of special importance to Australians as James Cook’s first voyage that led to the colonisation of the country by the British was to observe the 1769 transit from Tahiti. Australia will be one of the best places from which to view the 2012 transit for it will be visible from beginning to end from most of the country.

To give people an appreciation of the long history behind transits of Venus, I have written a book, ‘Transit of Venus: 1631 to the present’ that is published by NewSouth Publishing in association with Powerhouse Publishing and is available from 1 November 2011. The book relates some of the adventurous journeys undertaken by astronomers to view past transits and explains why the astronomers regarded the transits of such great importance that they were willing to risk their lives to observe them. The book has numerous illustrations including some beautiful original illustrations of the 1874 transit from the archives of Sydney Observatory.

More information at and at

Dr Nick Lomb

Phone: 03 9570 8418
Mobile: 0403 892 778


Visit to Adelaide for National Science Week 2011

The ASC South Australia branch, had a busy National Science Week. I missed their contribution to the launch event, but arrived in Adelaide in time to see Science Alive, the huge local Science Week event. I met a number of ASC members who were involved in exhibit stands and talks at this enormous undertaking, which filled a large pavilion at the Adelaide showgrounds. The event attracted around 24,000 people over 3 days. I’ve heard Science Alive will be offered even more space for next year.

The day after Science Alive closed, ASC SA hosted the book launch of Dinosaurs in Australia, a CSIRO publication, and attracted a full house of 120 people to this fun evening.

They held this event in association with RiAus. I look forward to a continued close relationship between the branch and RiAus which is now being led by its new director, Paul Willis.

Jesse Shore

National President

Discovery Science Writers Series: 23 April, Dr Leo Joseph and Dr Libby Robin

23 April 2010
12:30 pmto1:30 pm

Discovery Science Writers Series: Leo Joseph and Libby Robin

23 April 2010 12:30pm

Authors Dr Leo Joseph and Dr Libby Robin discuss the science behind their book ‘Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country’.


CSIRO Discovery

Black Mountain Laboratories

Clunies Ross Street, Acton

About the talk

Dr Leo Joseph and Dr Libby Robin have edited the marvellous new work Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, which recounts the history and the authors’ personal experiences of a particular bird species and their strategies for survival in the ever-changing climate of Australia.

Dr Joseph and Dr Robin join Mr Cris Kennedy from CSIRO Discovery Centre in a conversation about the process of writing for and editing their Whitley Award Winning book.

Read more about Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country.

About the authors

Dr Joseph is the Director and research leader of the Australian National Wildlife Collection (ANWC) and a board member of the ANWC Foundation.

Dr Joseph and Dr Robin join Mr Cris Kennedy from CSIRO Discovery Centre in a conversation about the process of writing for and editing Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country.

Read more about Dr Leo Joseph: investigating the evolution of Australian birds.

Dr Robin has a joint appointment in the Fenner School of the Australian National University, and as Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

She is an environmental historian with a Doctor of Philosophy in the History of Science from the University of Melbourne, Victoria. She currently coordinates the Australasian Environmental History Network.

About the Discovery Science Writers Series

CSIRO Discovery presents a series that celebrates authors from the Canberra region who publish in the science arena. Our talks will focus on the science behind the publications as well as the writing process.

Our authors have all recently published, and where possible, copies of their books will be on sale at our events and our authors will sign copies for you.

The Discovery Science Writers Series is presented in association with the Australian Science Communicators ACT.

Read more about this event on CSIRO’s events listing.

Read more about CSIRO Discovery.