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APS Fellow Alan Alda Brings Science to Life

Alan Alda, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors and writers, has a parallel career — communicating science and helping scientists communicate. Most famous for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the acclaimed TV show M*A*S*H, Alda has gone on to win numerous awards for his acting and writing over a career spanning more than 50 years. He hosted PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers for 15 years where he shared the work of scientists around the world, and starred in the early 2000s as Richard Feynman in the Broadway play “QED.”

In 2009, he founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University to help scientists learn how to better communicate their work to a wide audience. In 2012, he kicked off the “Flame Challenge,” an annual contest in which scientists answer a seemingly simple but deep question posed by an eleven-year-old student — “What is a flame?” or “What is sleep?” are examples. Alda recently spoke with Michael Lucibella of APS News, after the Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public nominated him to be a 2014 fellow of APS for his contributions to science education and communication.

What’s the root of your passion for science? Where did this interest in science come from?
You know I get asked that a lot and I don’t really know because I always had it. As a kid I used to do what most kids do, what I thought were experiments, mixing tooth paste and my mother’s face powder to see if I could get it to explode.

Did it ever work?
My parents would explode sometimes. I was an amateur inventor. I drifted away from my interest in science with some not-so-happy experiences with biology teachers who didn’t appreciate questions. But since my early twenties, I just read about science because it’s thrilling. It’s a great adventure and it’s a wonderfully engaging detective story that never ends. I just love it.

What made you decide on a career in show business and then why did you circle back to do more with science?
First of all, I grew up in show business. My father was an actor, and I stood in the wings watching him and other actors since I was about two years old. I have very vivid memories of that, and that’s how I knew what I wanted to do in my life. And to write — I wanted to write even before I became an actor. When I was asked to do the television show Scientific American Frontiers, I don’t think they realized I really had an interest in science and they were I think kind of surprised when I asked if I could not just read a narration, but actually interview the scientists on camera. Because that way I knew I would get a chance to spend a day with them and find out more about their science than just a glancing encounter with a narration. That was twenty or twenty-five years ago, and since then I have been working really seriously in trying to help scientists communicate with the public and with policy makers and with one another in fact. I’m really very excited about the progress that we’ve made.

Is there a particular story or encounter that really sticks in your mind from your time at Scientific American Frontiers that exemplifies why science communication is important?
Surprisingly, you might expect me to refer to a time when communication wasn’t so good. In fact it was the times that it was terrific that made me realize I had something that I could offer to scientists. That was because the conversations between us were true conversations. They were warm and human, and they weren’t conventional interviews where I just tossed questions to them and they could go into lecture mode. They actually had to contend with me really wanting to know and to understand. That warmed them up to me in a way I had never seen in a lecture and it made them more available to the audience. So I thought, what could I do to help them have that warm tone and that communicative stance when I’m not there or somebody like me is not there, pulling it out of them? I realized we could train them, for instance in the techniques of improvisation, which makes you relate to the other person. No matter how well you relate, it makes you relate better than you ever did before. It’s just amazing what it does. It transforms you a little bit. And that’s just one of the techniques.

What is it that you bring from your career in show business to science communication? What were you able to draw on and bring to scientists?
One of the tools that actors have is listening. I learned as an actor that really listening is being willing to be changed. The other person says something and forces you to respond, and that response comes from the fact that the other person had an effect on you. So listening isn’t just waiting for your turn to talk, but that’s true in life and it’s true in an odd way when you’re trying to communicate with somebody. If you think of it as a two-way street, where the person you’re trying to communicate with — the state of mind they’re in is as important, if not more important than the state of mind you’re in. It matters less what you have to tell them, than how they’re receiving it. Listening being a dynamic relationship, and listening therefore being a form of relating to the other person, really taking them into your consciousness, is something that I learned in acting and I think applies to all kinds of communication. And it even applies, not just when you’re talking in person to an audience, but when you write for a reader, you have to track what’s going on in their minds. You can’t say things that they have no chance of understanding, then blame them for not understanding. These are the things that we teach at the Alda Center for Communicating Science.

The philosophy behind the Center for Communicating Science is to bring this to scientists. Is it your experience that scientists are particularly receptive to learning about communicating and receptive to what can scientists themselves bring that traditional “science communicators” can’t?
There are wonderful science journalists and they perform a really important function. Something that they can’t do though, that a scientist can do, is convey to the public the scientists’ own state of excitement about their work. Scientists are excited about their work. I must have interviewed about 700 scientists, and I find them incredibly passionate about their work. They wouldn’t put in the hours that they do, they wouldn’t engross themselves so deeply in it if they weren’t passionate. And that passion gets lost in translation. If they can get comfortable with letting people see and realize how passionate they are, the public’s understanding of science will grow, their own interest in it will grow and the acceptance of science and the funding of science well get better.

Have you been able to track scientists who have gone through the program and seen them grow because of it?
We get mostly reports from them and they’re extremely positive so were very encouraged about it. This is a great honor to be named a fellow of the APS. But I think of it as an honor that comes to all of us at the Center for Communicating Science, because we’re all engaged in the same effort to extend the reach of scientists around the country and around the world. I’m so proud of how terrific everyone is at the center in doing that.

How did the Flame Challenge come to be?
It came to me while I was writing a guest editorial for Science magazine. I was asked to write something about communication and I was about halfway through it, and I thought, “This is a little dry. I’m not following my own advice, which is to tell a personal story. What personal story do I have?” Then it suddenly hit me — I had this kind of groundbreaking event that happened to me when I was eleven. I was fascinated with what flame was at the end of a candle and I asked the teacher, “What’s a flame? What’s going on in there?” and all she could tell me was “It’s oxidation,” which left me completely in the dark. I had never heard that term before and that’s all she said. All these decades later, I used that to start this little essay on communication, but by the time I got to the end of the page, I realized I had a contest here. I thought it would be a really interesting experience for scientists to see how hard it is to communicate lucidly about something as complex as a flame, so that eleven-year-olds can understand it and maybe even be delighted by the answer. The kicker would be the entries would be judged by real eleven-year-olds. It turned out to be a really fascinating experience for the scientists to get intrigued by how hard it is to do that. It turned out to be a really good learning experience for the kids, because having the power to judge made them pay extra attention to the entries. And because they saw entries coming in, covering the subject from two or three angles, they got to learn more about it so they could judge the entry more accurately and more fairly. Each year we’ve had a different question. This year’s deadline was February 13, and we [wanted] people weigh in on “What is sleep?” You don’t have to be an expert in that field of research, because you’re being tested not on your knowledge of it, but on your ability to communicate about it. Of course it has to be accurate, it’s vetted for accuracy before it goes to the kids.

How do you decide on the topics for these contests?
They’re suggested by eleven-year-olds. This one was suggested by a kid in a school in Long Island. I loved it. He was quoted in the newspaper as saying “I hope the answer is clear and short and accurate so I won’t have to keep thinking about it.”

Why is it important for scientists to get their message out and for the public to know what’s happening in science?
It’s important because the public needs to understand what scientists are doing so that they can support it when it’s in their interest. If they’re concerned about it, they need to be able to ask pertinent questions about it, and not questions that drive the science off a cliff. Scientists need to obviously be able to explain their science to funders, policy makers, and so on so that they can understand what they’re funding. Nobody would fund something that they don’t understand, and yet there’s a lot more work that can be done in making it clear — making it clear and not dumbing it down, not representing it as something that it isn’t. That takes work, it takes a new way of looking at things. And the third reason is more and more work is being done in collaboration among different disciplines, and they have to be able to talk to one another. I’m sorry to say, I’ve heard stories where hours or days were wasted in a collaboration because the same word meant different things to the different participants.

What is it that drew you to play Richard Feynman on stage, and how does the “QED” play fit with the arc of your second career as a science communicator?
I love the character of Feynman, I love Feynman’s contributions, and his stories are so engaging. I thought there was a very good play in there somewhere and we spent about six years with the playwright. Peter Parnell did a wonderful job. I took six years to turn it into a play that would engage the audience. The theatrical work on turning it into a play was exciting to do, but behind it all was my wish that tens of thousands of people would get introduced to Feynman, and get introduced to his thinking. He made big contributions to physics, but he made enormous contributions as well to the public in helping them think like scientists. It’s contagious the way he describes just thinking about ordinary things in life. It kindled your curiosity. It did mine. He talked once about wondering if human sense of smell was anything like the dog’s sense of smell, somehow leftover in us from evolution. He had friends take a book out of the bookcase while he was out of the room, open the book and then put it back onto the shelf. Then he came back in and smelled all the books in the bookcase and landed on the book that they had chosen. So I did the same thing decades later with my grandchildren.

What’s next for you?
I’m going to London to see a production of a play I wrote about Marie Curie, called Radiance. That’s been done in the states once, and I’ve rewritten it a lot so I’m curious to see it over there.

Is that coming back to the United States?
It might. I hope it plays all over. Marie is another person I want to see audiences learn more about.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to include the involvement of the Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik