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  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 02:11 - Segment 1: The Meteor Rise (Short Story)

  • 09:18 - Segment 2: The Origin of "Once Upon A Time" (Metaphor History)

  • 21:09 - Segment 3: Storytelling Science (Communication Topic)

  • 34:00 - Segment 4: Talk With Helena Hartmann (Guest Interview)


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To my extremely patient family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the 44th episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.


To show support if you find yourself enjoying this content, please do take a few seconds to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or whatever platform you are listening to this on, as it truly does help independent podcasts reach new people through essentially minimal effort. You can always leave a small review as well, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting all updates, as well as on my personal website: Like every season, I will hold a  prize draw on my 50th episode for… the thing-a-ma-bob, the amazing, terrific, thing from this podcast. Have a listen in later episodes for more information about this, thing-a-ma-bob, whatever it ends up being.


First, well, it’s been a minute. Actually more than that, it’s been months, since I opened my Metaphorigins project and glanced at many unfinished scripts. Since my last episode uploaded in June, I honestly just could not produce any creative writing I was proud of. Call it writer’s block, call it burnout or fatigue, but any possibility of writing good material was practically zero due to all that was going on in my life. To my detriment, I opted to do what most people do during these times, reduce responsibilities down to the bare essentials. These were the PhD, my relationship, socializing with family and friends, and performing my duties as the head of a charity and a university society. Now, months later, I acknowledge that there was no right or wrong decision there, but I am disappointed that I could not find the time to finish off the episodes that I had already started. But here’s to one, right before the Christmas break. More updates to be shared at the end of this episode.


Okay. So for today’s episode, I’ll be talking about an idiom used in almost every children’s story, that rings in the ears of fairy tale lovers and fantasy fanatics.


And we’re off. It’s yet another beautiful starry night, emblems of fire specks glowing in darkened sky. The air is cool and wet, as seasons seem to be changing, most of the snow disappears with warmer temperatures. This remembrance brings a smile to your face, knowing the colourful leaves returned.


At your feet, small puddles form from condensed vapours on the ground. Children hop from one to the previous, catching splash on their shoes. Their laughter rings from miles away, getting louder and louder. Dogs bark in excitement, running away from each other, sniffing in unison.


At the town square, anyone who is anyone is there, smiling happily and chatting about what will happen that day. Your neighbours, entrepreneurs of artisan crafts, wave to you as they pass by with their products. The town mayor, in her big brown cowboy boots and tan-coloured blazer, shakes hands after saying farewells. Even the Sheriff is present, sporting his cartoonishly large belt buckle and archetypical handle-bar moustache, eyes half wandering the crowd and half looking at the night sky.


Today is the highly regarded meteor rise, an event that happens only once a year. Meteors float off the surface of the Earth and into space, which produce a kind of sparkling light, dancing among the other specks of stars. Most people will make wishes as the event will occur, hoping to live the remaining part of their lives in happiness until their births. Some people will shout at the meteors, asking where they are coming from and what they accomplished here on our planet. It’s both exciting and somber in the same moment, a superposition of emotions revealed to the masses.


You move your gaze from right to left and notice a peculiar man looking straight at you. Indeed, it’s as if he will know that you look at him, call to him. His large balloon shaped head will not even surprise you, but rather the fact that he has no hair whatsoever, even eyebrows are absent. His attire, bright silver, practically futuristic jacket and pants, like he will step into an alien cruiser. 


He stands up from his wooden bench and walks awkwardly front-first, heading somewhere. Without lifting his stare, he approaches your own bench and sits beside you. Instantly, he hands you a dark, metallic earplug and motions with his right hand to place the object within your left ear. He gestures to his right ear and shows that he is also using a similar device. In utmost curiosity, you oblige.


“Can you hear me?” says the anthropomorphic being. You try and remember what has happened.


“Yes. Can you hear me?” You reply.




You both stare into the distance for a while and then at each other, back at the sky, and then back to each other again.


“Try taking it off.” He suggests.


Again, out of curiosity, you remove the earpiece.


“Em raeh uoy od won?”


You shake your head. It’s complete gibberish what this man will state. You place the earpiece back in and say, “I don’t understand, what is this device? Who are you?”


“I am one of the characters, call me Exposition. And I’ve come to talk to you, as you are the Protagonist I have been searching for.”


You will feel shock. “What? What do you mean, Protagonist?”


Exposition chuckles, “I expected you were going to say that. You are definitely the Protagonist. It’s so lovely to meet you.”


You realize that throughout this whole conversation, you begin to hear things very differently. Birds flying above you have unique tweets. Laughter from the kids seem to be moving away from their mouths, getting softer and softer. Everything feels off.


“What are you doing here?” You ask.


“Well Protagonist, I’m here to finalize your story.” Expo says with a wink.


“What story?” Now you will be really confused.


“Have you ever heard of inversion? It’s an invention that was covered up in the past so that future generations will not use this technology on the powerless. Think of it like reverse entropy.”


“Inversion? Reverse entropy? That’s impossible.” You brush him off like he will be criminally insane.


Exposition continues, “In this universe, the universe you call your reality, time flows in one direction. In your case, it flows from what you call the future to the past. For example, can you remember what will happen tomorrow?”


You blink at him, dumbfounded. “That sentence doesn’t even make any sense. How can you remember something in the future?”


Exposition nods, “That’s my point, Protagonist. You only have your memories. You know to some degree what has happened but cannot recall what will just occur. Meteors rise off the earth, children’s boots catch splash from the rain puddles that condense from water vapours on the ground. We live in a twilight world. There are realities in infinite space, such as my universe, where time moves from past to future, and you anticipate what will happen next. This is what I’m trying to tell you, this is the story you have been in this whole time, from my universe.”


You start panicking. “If I’m the Protagonist of this story, created in your universe, what will happen as time moves into the future?”


Exposition’s expression looks grim, “Well, once upon a time, if I can be honest with you Protagonist, in the beginning, ignorance was bliss.”


Whoa okay, I need to stop there. My brain hurts from consciously trying to use the opposite tense when writing this story. I got inspired about contemplating a short as if time moves in the opposite direction and what that would mean in the writing, from the fantastic movie Tenet. Perhaps some Christopher Nolan fans out there can recognize a few of the Easter Eggs within the story. Anyway, since time is of the essence, you perhaps spotted today’s expression, a phrase in every youthful story’s starter pack of sentence structure and word additions, uttered so frequently that I question whether there can be a beginning to its existence, but we will try.


What’s the origin to the phrase, “Once upon a time”?


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Most of this information was obtained from many articles discussing the uses and origin of this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.


I love a great story. Stories are what have kept me interested in writing my entire life. What is a story? Surprisingly, this isn’t easy to describe. Through my education, stories were (and still are) a structured way of sharing lessons or ideas. I remember in high school, I wrote a humorous screenplay with a friend of mine about a by-the-book police officer trying to get a homeless person out of a public park. Most of it was dialogue between the two characters, myself playing the police officer, and my friend being the homeless individual. It was laced with assumptions about class and race, sprinkling in stereotypes about Asian people (for myself, the police officer) and Black people (for my friend, the homeless person). Somehow it won a prize for excellence in writing at the municipal level. What was even the overall lesson or idea, that Asians work hard in their job and Black people are inappropriately treated even when they have everything taken away?


Yet, simple stories are the ones that I believe are undervalued. Literature scholars tend to pay homage to the epics, long form content like Joyce’s Ulysses, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s not until you get to poetry that short form is equally as valued, like the works of Dickenson or Rilke. Although a writer cannot mention every possible nuance linked to a specific topic, it is the brevity of one’s words to reveal novelty on well-known concepts that is perhaps the most impressive. Whether that be love or loneliness, fate or uncertainty, happiness or depression, anger or joy. We feel certain emotions through the word choice provided, to empathize with the theme of the writing.


Short form stories, therefore, offer that astounding level of creativity. These typically take the form of fairy tales, folklore that presents the oral traditions and culture of a group of people. According to the Scholarly Community Encyclopedia, “The English term "fairy tale" stems from the fact that the French contes often included fairies.” These were stories of the world when reasoning was based on trusting the older generation, rather than testing and then recording one’s own observations.


Effective storytelling, written or oral, always has a specific structure, of a beginning, a middle and an end. In stories, it is absolutely essential to give these concepts form. For this segment, I aim to focus more on the beginning, how short stories like fairy tales start the lead-in towards something of value, and speak on this more generally in the next segment. As here, finally, we get to the idiom for today, the unsurprising beginning to most children’s short stories that are fictional or generational, Once upon a time. The Collins Dictionary describes that the phrase is, “used to indicate that something happened or existed a long time ago or in an imaginary world.”. By placing the story in some historical past at the start, a story that may contain other-worldly beings and strange happenings, one can really be placed in the shoes of past storytellers, with the information they knew at the time.


Perhaps it’s more than that, that the desire for formulaic writing is to address the main audience which is children. In an 2018 article for the Paris Review by writer Anthony Madrid, he states, “Consider: when a child is exposed to a cartoon, even before anything happens in the narrative, the kid knows a lot. Front and center, there’s the fact the presentation is intended for children. That’s huge. The fact of the thing being a cartoon means that almost all the dreariness of adult affairs, and the curdlingness of adult ambiguity, will be excluded. Instead, the presentation will be geared toward enjoyment. There will be humor and animals and other good things. Indeed, there’s nothing more disappointing in childhood than when this convention ([that]cartoons are for pleasure) is violated.” Why bring up any critical thinking at the start by not placing the narrative in a time when anything was possible?


Origins of fairy tales or folklore tales are still up for discussion, with some sources debating written records could attribute their start to Ancient Rome, India, China or Greece. In Western culture, we typically remember those that have impacted the development of our own society, therefore, Aesop’s Fables from Greece is one of such earliest forms of the fairy tale. Other’s even more popular include the Brother’s Grimm, a collection of German fairy tales written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th Century. Oddly enough, there are no fairy tales in the Brother’s Grimm that begin with our idiom, “Once upon a time”, but rather “Once there was…”. These collections included famous Disney adaptations like Snow White, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. In a 2012 New Yorker article by writer Joan Acocella, the Grimm Brothers initially planned that, “Their first edition was not intended for the young, nor, apparently, were the tales told at rural firesides. The purpose was to entertain grownups, during or after a hard day’s work, and rough material was part of the entertainment. But the reviews and the sales of the Grimms’ first edition were disappointing to them. Other collections, geared to children, had been more successful, and the brothers decided that their second edition would take that route. […] Above all, any matter unsuitable for the young had been expunged.” This is indeed surprising since, as stated in the article, “many [tales] of which feature mutilation, dismemberment, and cannibalism, not to speak of ordinary homicide, often inflicted on children by their parents or guardians. Toes are chopped off; severed fingers fly through the air.” Trust me, if you think you’re ready to read the Juniper Tree, you are not.


“Once upon a time” has been the English standard for starting fairy tales. However, this is not the case within other cultures. Paraphrasing Madrid in the Paris Review article, In West Africa, those who speak Hausa start a folk tale with “A story about story. Let it go, let it come.” In Chile, tales begin with “If you ask to hear it, you’ll listen and learn it.” In Arabic nations, often stories begin with uncertainty by stating, “This happened or maybe it did not; There was or there was not”. This likely stems from the fact that only God is able to know things with certainty.


Okay, but where does today’s idiom, “Once upon a time” originate from? In an article on Allthewhyser, it states, “Geoffrey Chaucer also used the similar phrase “once on its use” in The Canterbury Tales, published in 1385.” This is also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as one of the earliest recordings of the phrase. But in addition, the article states, “The first recorded use of such a phrase, in this case “Onys uppon a day,” was in 1380 in the story Sir Ferumbras. This was a Middle English romantic poem that was part of a collection of literature on the history of Charlemagne’s France.” This is probably the earliest recording of the phrase but it potentially stems even further back than that, likely to before writing was the conventional way of sharing stories.


Despite not finding the true origin, “once upon a time” is still one of those absurdly over used statements that we forget is both expression and tradition. These traditions appear in English as much as they do in other cultures, having the same literal meaning but sprout their own wings and appear in their own unique ways. To end, I leave you with one more variation. Because I’m currently in Ireland, a very storytelling-rich nation, I smiled at its Wikipedia segment for starting folk tales. “It was long long ago. If I was there that time I would not be here now. But as I am I have one small story. As I have it today may you have it seven thousand times better tomorrow. May you only lose a pair of the incisors by it, five of the grinders and a fine strip of the gum.” This sounds exactly like how people in old Irish pubs begin their conversations, but only after a few rounds of pints.


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For this communications segment, I would like to discuss a general practice that I find is the most effective at communicating science to the public. And that topic is storytelling science.


Out of all the skills I cared enough to develop over the course of my life, from my adolescence in primary school, to my teenage years in high school, to my young adult days in undergraduate to postgraduate education, writing has got to be the one I value the most. Through writing, I find the themes and content just come effortlessly, as if I am remembering that I’ve done this before and am just recalling the text from an invisible field. Even now, writing has not just encompassed my job as a PhD student, through paper submissions, thesis reports and experimental note taking, but it has come into my personal life as well, from writing to express my feelings with my partner after disagreements, to writing to communicate with my family and friends back in Canada, to even writing scripts for podcast episodes about my opinions on writing (hah, so meta). It is the only medium I can think of that surpasses boundaries relating to time and space, where thoughtful writing knowingly takes long hours, to days, and can be shared across vast distances in an instant. To quote Sylvia Plath, “Let me live, laugh and say it well in good sentences”.


You don’t particularly get this level of reflectiveness through, say, in-person communication. In face-to-face encounters, we do not necessarily communicate clearly, but rapidly and impulsively, emotionally and unpredictably. It’s the candid form of communication that people ironically come to respect when done right, but disdain when done poorly. Most communication within our social relationships fall under this category, and it is the mind that makes several calculations in a moment’s notice. In-person communication doesn’t just need good word selection, but also voice tonality, emotional connection and body language awareness, to name a few. Even though it is the content that brings two interlocutors together, these smaller, unconscious assumptions are what one typically remembers the most. To quote expert fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”


Despite my bias towards writing, a form of communication that suits my introverted and reflective persona, I think face-to-face communication is probably the most important in society. Imagine if everyone started communicating only through wrote letters. My absolute dream. But no matter if these are handwritten or typed, society would slow down to a pace that is utterly dysfunctional. As well, relationships would be unidimensional, superfluous in their content, and often stagnant. Maybe in years past, this level of progression was normal, but today, in a world changing by the second, face-to-face communication helps bring relationships to their highest potential in the most efficient time, friendly or professionally.


Now, imagine that you had the reflective ability of writing linked to the emotional connection of face-to-face communication, what would that look like? I picture a superhero in a cape, call them Captain Communicator. Are they holding a sacred microphone or magic megaphone? Without the cheesy Marvel attire or godly idols, this is the kind of person who I myself aspire to be: conscience of all content, someone who is reflective in the moment and responds thoughtfully, knowing the body language that fits the present circumstances. Someone who starts dialogue by properly setting up the fact or suggestion or opinion which will be made, and conclude with remarks to be discussed further. They are the Master Storyteller.


Storytelling is a primary feature of human civilization. In a 2018 blog article by Jennifer Van Pelt on Word Alive (a US non-profit hoping to inspire a love for reading in American youth), Van Pelt describes “Though to date, we do not have any recordings of these original stories, we have discovered proof of visual representations of stories from our late ancestors. The Chauvet Cave in France is the oldest representation of storytelling found thus far, dating to 36,000 years ago.” Other depictions of storytelling can be traced as far as 3000 BC in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course, this is just evidence we have found of storytelling, but certainly visual depictions do not necessarily mean that storytelling didn’t exist before then. Until these sounds associated with their definitions were invented, storytelling was done through simple forms of language passed on from person to person.


Why is storytelling such an important part of human communication? In a 2017 TedX Talk by presentations expert David Phillips, he explains the reasoning behind why people are so impacted by good storytelling, “It all comes down to one thing, and that is emotional investment.” He furthers describes how great stories induce three specific hormones: dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins, all of which make us feel good. They contribute to focus, empathy and creativity. People are more attentive listeners, reflect on other’s perspectives and respond thoughtfully, a perfect recipe for building a society that was better than it was yesterday.


I reflect on this topic now as someone who believes that one of the most fundamental problems with science today is the way it is communicated. Scientists are not often chosen for their ability to communicate but rather for their expertise in a specific field. In a 2017 blog article on the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Science website by then PhD student Marina Watanabe (watt-tah-nah-bay), she discusses why scientists need to be better communicators, “when discussing our research, we often fail to remember that not everyone has a background on the topic we study or even has a solid scientific education […] We use jargon the average person has never heard of, methods they’ve probably never seen, and the topic that we’ve spent years studying might be so complex that our explanation barely seems to scratch the surface of what is going on. Scientists should (obviously) do good science. However, it is also our responsibility to communicate that good science to the public in a manner that anyone and everyone can digest.” Watanabe includes examples of public outcry for the Pigman Monstrosity, based on a project from the Salk Institute hoping to use pigs as biological factories for making human organs as a solution to the absurdly long waiting time of recipients for organ transplants, as well as vaccines. How much has this become such an evident part of lives, since the COVID pandemic opened up our eyes to the complexity of communicating not just the results from scientific research, but the methods used to obtain those results and the motivation for devising those methods.


Storytelling and science fit together like hand and glove, but it is not often that scientists are encouraged to communicate effectively to audiences that exclude their peers, these fellow experts in their field. Other audiences they encounter include young students, politicians, their family and friends, and of course the public, the last making a vast percentage of the people they should care about the most. It is the public that, in the case of researchers within universities or government-funded institutes, typically fund the scientific work. This group is made up of all sorts of men and women who are stay-at-home-parents, doctors, athletes, teachers, lawyers, firefighters, of all cultural backgrounds, wanting to be informed about something. Generally speaking, that something needs to interest them. In a 2012 Ted talk by filmmaker Andrew Stanton, he states, “Probably the greatest story commandment is [to] make me care”. 


Generally, caring about a topic is what drives motivation to learn. Stanton’s greatest story commandment is echoed in a 2019 article published in the Journal of Science Communication titled Storytelling: the soul of science communication, in which the authors state in their opening paragraph, “in a world where we increasingly look towards science and technology to find answers that will help us secure a fair and sustainable future, it is imperative that people become empowered to make informed decisions about issues rooted in science. To achieve this, science communicators must make science-related information engaging and relevant. In short, it is about making people care. That is why we need to go beyond presenting facts and evidence, towards creating emotional connections between scientists and publics.”. They describe six independent research studies and their recommendations to what makes effective storytelling in science: 1) Using cultural approaches, 2) Understanding storytelling tools, 3) Strategic visual formatting, 4) Narratives in presenting studies, 5) Training storytellers rather than story-listeners, and 6) Collaboration among scientists and science communication practitioners. It is paramount that these factors should be considered when addressing how best to communicate the impact specific scientific research has on various audiences.


In our rapidly changing world, novel technologies have brought out the most creative scientists into the spotlight. Indeed, science communication on video platforms like Youtube have exploded. Finally, scientists and engineers who were also creative artists suddenly garnered massive followings, and this suddenly became their immediate line of work. From lecture style videos like those published by Khan Academy, to video blogging channels like Derek Muller’s Veritasium, to the hand-drawn sketches of humanities topics by CGP Grey, millions of people around the world became obsessed with learning. Yes, the podcast was partly inspired by the creativity of Michael Steven’s quirky VSauce videos, about tangental concepts usually centred around a central topic of unique importance to all our lives. For example, in one of my favourite videos about finding the answer to “What is the most scariest thing?”, Stevens talks about popular phobias, mainstream horror elements, and concepts in fear research, before getting to the video’s 40-min conclusion.


But probably most important of all, science should be as human as possible. Not only should you tell me why scientific research is important for my life, but why is it important to you? Often scientists are these shadow figures working for obscene hours within the confines of academic institutes. What is the inspiration for their actions? How can the public gain a sense of evidence-based thinking if they cannot grasp the emotions of those working to uncover the mysteries of our reality? In a 2021 Nature correspondence article titled Storytelling can be a powerful tool for science, the authors mention that, “In contrast with straight communication of experimental results, telling individual research stories portrays science as a human-driven endeavour, full of successes, uncertainties, missteps and failures, which in turn promotes transparency. What really matters is what story is being told and by whom.” Like the protagonist of a story, we need to connect with that individual, see ourselves in their circumstances, to fully understand the reasons for their actions and conduct the research they do.


It is by this standard that storytelling should be regarded as a fundamental part of science. Currently, those in the scientific community are advised to focus on theory, methodology and data analysis. Of course these are at the core of proper scientific research. But why is communication of these core attributes not a core attribute of science in its own right? Science cannot be a black box, a silo, a medieval fortress whose only defence to criticism is claiming expertise. Science is not an authoritarian dictator that rules by following facts, it is a democratic consensus that needs to invite challenge and communicate as transparently as possible, both the technical aspects and human elements. 


To paraphrase one of my favourite YouTube channel video endings, “And as always, thanks for listening.”


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For my fourth guest of the season, I’ll be interviewing someone who has been through the academic gauntlet, while also starting an independent SciComm project regarding storytelling research in her field.


She is a psychologist, neuroscientist and science communicator from Germany. She completed her PhD in Social Neuroscience at the University of Vienna, and the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. Currently, she is working as a postdoctoral researcher at University Hospital Essen in Germany. In her research, she investigates how we perceive pain in ourselves and in other people around us. She is especially interested in how cognitive processes (such as expectations and past experiences) influence our pain perception, and what happens in the brain during pain. She also writes fictional short stories to communicate research as part of her science communication project Science & Fiction.


Please welcome the creative communicator, Helena Hartmann.



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There’s just so much value in speaking to people who are passionate about the work they do. You can tell how it provides them energy and likely how little effort it is despite the amount of work it encompasses. I hope you enjoyed learning about “Once Upon a Time” and Storytelling Science. If there’s one takeaway I have from producing this episode, it’s that stories are the gateway to so much more than just a lesson, but a connection to something larger than ourselves. And in terms of science, it’s the gateway to that small hint of inspiration we need to address our innate curious minds. Anyway, for some updates on my end, gosh, there’s so many. I’ve travelled to Spain, France, and back home to Canada since my last episode went up, mainly to spend time with family and friends. I have really focused most of my time in the PhD, as somehow there is only one and half years left! Absolutely crazy. I was always told that time does move faster the older you get, but never anticipated it to move this fast. Do take care of yourselves during the holiday break, and note that you are appreciated and loved. But that’s it for this episode, thank you so much for listening. Do remember to follow the podcast Instagram page for all updates in cool visual format, and as always, anyone following will be placed into the draw to win some Metaphorigins swag, whatever that ends up being, on my 50th and Season 5 Finale. There will be a small(er) break gearing up for the mid-season special, so keep your eyes peeled and ears unclogged for those updates! Rate, subscribe, share, message, megaphone this episode to your family and friends. Tune in for the next episode, but until then, stay skeptical but curious.


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