Storytelling Science

Tell stories, learn science! See these other
Storytelling Science columns from the Hindustan Times (2005-07)

Why Women are Better at Science

Amitabha Mukerjee

Many of us look on "science" as something faraway, living in dense forbidding books -- tricky "exam problems" that have to be "solved" by memorizing "techniques".

Yet here is a science experiment: Chop an onion. Fry it until the oil starts to separate. Add some mustard seeds. Stir until you get a light fragrance. Add a few green chillies . Add a good bit of whole spinach leaf, some salt, and cook on low heat for a few minutes until the leaves start to wilt. Serve immediately on rice. Yum!!

"Hello?" You are saying. This is not science, this is a recipe! Yes -- but it is also a complete science experiment. The point at which oil "separates", the way the mustard yields a fragrance, how salt releases water in the spinach, are all results of this experiment, which every housewife understands. Her understanding is intuitive but she is just as right as any scientist, because it works for her!

Did you know that our great-great-great.. grandmothers never used green chilly?  First it was planted in Sri Lanka, which is why the word for it in some languages is "Lanka".

Personal Science

Increasingly, the view of modern science is more individual. We must each have our own science. What is called science changes with time, and what is science today may be superstition tomorrow. Science is not an objective reality outside us, but a construct of social forces creating a certain point of view. In a very important sense, your own story of how the world behaves, is your science. It is your identity. And by banishing this to the books, our children are banishing their self-esteem, their confidence. The battle of Storytelling Science is not just about science, but about our souls.

Yes, science is about stories. There are many stories behind this recipe. Cutting the onions creates thousands of microscopic explosions, releasing a sulphur compound. When this chemical reaches the eye, it mixes with the moisture on there, making sulphuric acid. Now, acid is dangerous for our eyes, so the eye glands react by producing lots of water (tears) that washes away this acid!

When the same onion is fried, the cellulose in the cells break down into sucrose (sugar), making it sweeter and tastier. The slower you cook it, the more sucrose and any cook worth his salt knows that cooking slower captures more flavour . Hard to believe, but there is a Bengali dish called "peyaajer paayesh " which is a dessert made with onions! And once the cellulose in the cell walls break up, the oil also escapes, and the onions are done!

How you can matter

In our storytelling science sessions, we go to schools and have children tell their stories by making their own storytelling toys. Fascinatingly, girls are often better at this kind of science - especially in villages. I think this may happen because they are more willing to think independently, avoiding bookish cliche's.

Girls are more confident in their personal science, their worldview - maybe because of their personal experiments in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the boys are led astray by all those fat books. Personally, I think this is why so some mothers (ahem!) may be more practical than their husbands!

In this vast country, millions of school children are losing their childhood in the myth of a faraway science. This column is for you, the adults, so you can awaken a favourite child into science by sharing stories like this. But you can't just tell it you have to live it by inviting her to actually make this recipe!


When Amitabha Mukerjee (mukerjee [at] isn't doing Computer Science at IIT Kanpur, he helps children tell their stories with low cost interactive toys.