I’m not sure how many of you are old enough to remember Hawkeye Pierce, the irreverent chief trauma surgeon in M*A*S*H, which ran on TV from 1972 to 1983. Perhaps you’ve seen the reruns.
Pierce and his merry band of misfits made the best of their very bad situation: trying to save lives and limbs of soldiers wounded in battle. The story began life as a novel, was made into a movie, and then became one of the highest rated TV programs ever shown in the US.
Alan Alda played Hawkeye Pierce, and I loved to watch him as he moved easily from comedy to tragedy and back again. He won Emmys for acting, writing, and directing episodes of M*A*S*H and Golden Globes for his acting in the series.
Though M*A*S*H was purportedly about the Korean War, it tapped into the national zeitgeist of growing opposition to the Vietnam War.
For the last several decades, Alda has been addressing another societal issue. It’s an effort that’s especially important to the US now, as the value and integrity of science—and scientists—are questioned by too many irrational segments of our country.
I call him the Science Communication Whisperer in my title because he’s for the most part polite and understated. But the fervor he brings to this work is strong—and his message is (to borrow his phrase) clear—and vivid.
He seeks to bring clarity to our understanding of scientific developments and to share his excitement about them.
MY FAVORITE ALAN ALDA STORY
Years ago, he became seriously ill while working in a remote area of Chile. In severe pain in a small hospital, he said a brilliant surgeon informed him that about a yard of his intestine needed to be removed to save his life.
As he described it, the surgeon “leaned over so he could see my face and I could see his eyes through his rimless glasses and told me ‘we’re going to cut out the diseased portion and sew the ends together.’”
“Oh,” I said; “you’re going to do an end-to-end anastomosis.”
When the surgeon asked how he knew about that procedure, he responded, “Oh, I did many of them on M*A*S*H.”
How could he manage that? No mention of the searing pain, the fear of dying so far from home. Merely a touch of magical ironic humor. Just one reason I’ve become even more of an Alda fan now than I was years ago.
ABOUT THAT CLARITY…
These often fascinating discussions with scientists and other amazing people (such as Yo Yo Ma, Isabel Allende, Sir Paul McCartney) are far-ranging, but the focus is always on communication. Alda’s become an expert on the topic.
Remarkably, he doesn’t prepare formal questions—relying on the subject’s responses to fire his own imagination, now fueled by years of immersion (as well as preparation, I’m sure) to generate the next question. The effect is smooth, free-flowing, often surprising conversation.
It seems that this man of the arts has long had a passion for science. Over the past several decades, he’s fused those two areas with the goal of helping scientists communicate their work better to us non-scientists—and to help us all communicate more clearly with one another.
He’s written several books on the latter topic, including If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? At the World Science Festival in New York, where he’s played a major role over the years, he discussed that book and “the art of communication” with the inimitable Tina Fey.
ENTER ALAN ALDA, STAGE CENTER
Alda’s podcasts and other efforts have been supported by the Los Angeles-based Kavli Foundation, “a catalyst for advancing scientific research, strengthening the relationship between science and society, and honoring scientific achievement.”
The podcasts are free, though Patreon support, on a scale beginning at $2/month and progressing to interaction with Alda and some perks, is an option for those who want to further support his work.
In February, Alda became the recipient of the Kavli Foundation’s “first-ever Distinguished Kavli Science Communicator award.”
For ten years, Alda’s co-hosted the presentation of the Kavli Prize, which “honors scientists for breakthroughs in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, transforming our understanding of the very big, the very small and the very complex.” (He’s also interviewed a number of its recipients, some of them Nobel Prize winners, on his podcasts.)
How can a man who’s never formally studied science merit this new award? Alda’s done breakthrough work using the actor’s craft to discover some keys to communication—and then teaching them to scientists.
The program honoring him, “Alan Alda and the Art of Communicating Science,” provides a delightful, funny, and informative look at his extremely diverse life. The video of the presentation consists of his discussions with Brian Greene, the physics professor who founded the World Science Festival with his wife and has worked with Alda for years. Their dialogue is interspersed with excerpts from his extraordinary career.
Here’s the link to a most entertaining 47-1/2 minutes, but for those who don’t have the time, I’ve selected parts that I found particularly worth sharing with you. (I can’t, of course, fully capture the fun, down to the closing song in his honor.)
ALDA LANDS HIS DREAM GIG
He’s long seen similarities between art and science, finding both fields seek the truth about life, and both require rigor. “Not every word will do in a poem, or note in a symphony,” he observes as examples of art’s rigor.
In 1990, he landed what was clearly a dream Alda gig when he was asked to host Scientific American Frontiers on PBS. What could be better than spending a day with scientists? In that 11-year stint, he introduced the public to issues of “basic science, philosophical questions, and cutting edge technology”—all through on-site, hands-on experiences.
This work was not without hazards. “I loved the producers,” he told Greene amicably, “but they were trying to kill me for 11 years.”
A few examples from the series, which is still available on Amazon Prime:
—climbing to the top of Mount Vesuvius to chat with a scientist who was monitoring the volcano for signs of eruption;
—getting “socked in the puss” by a baby chimp being trained to live in the wild;
—catching “an 8-foot shark in an 11-foot rowboat.”
THE EUREKA MOMENT
A truly seminal moment arose when Alda was engaged in a talk with a scientist and felt they were having “a very good connection.” But something he said reminded her of her lecture, and “she turned away from me and was telling the camera.”
When he reengaged her, she was again “personal, connected.” Then she “turned back to cold lecture mode. I realized how important it was to maintain that contact and ways to get back to intimate connection.”
Greene, the interviewer, observed that scientists’ training requires them “to strip away the human, get rid of the human.” He confirmed the importance of Alda’s determination to help scientists communicate as human beings.
But how to bring out the humanity beneath the controlled veneer of data-driven objectivity? Alda decided to structure a study in an academic setting, starting with the actor’s tool of improvisation, which encourages spontaneity and natural performances.
He began with 20 engineering students at the University of Southern California. “We improvised for two hours, then asked them to talk again.” The significant before/after difference further convinced him that “training scientists in improv would vastly improve their communication.”
Stony Brook University in New York State signed on in 2009, and Alda created a six-week training program.
“Something about the experience of improvising opens you up,” he says. “Communication is a two-way street. I want to engage, hear, remember.”
Scientists became just as enthusiastic about the improv and games he taught them as actors do, he told Greene.
“Experience gets you habituated to looking in the person’s eye, picking up on their facial expressions, sensing the tone of voice makes you respond, [it] changes you.”
A student participant gave an example of the value she could see in this education: “Sharing bad news with a patient/family, I’d want to be attuned to their reaction. The back and forth is so crucial.”
What began as an experiment in Stony Brook is now the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
EDUCATING KIDS ABOUT SCIENCE WHILE BETTER EDUCATING SCIENTISTS
Alda developed an ingenious twofer that stemmed from his childhood fascination with flame. He recalls asking his teacher “What’s a flame?” Her response: “Oxidation.”
“Now,” he says, “I had two things I didn’t know the answer to.”
He never forgot that knowledge gap. In 2012, he wrote an article in Science magazine challenging scientists to explain the concept of a flame to today’s equivalents of his 11-year old self.
Best of all, the kids decided the winning entry, which you can see in the video. Over the years, he did the same challenge with other basic topics: What is sleep? What is time? What is sound?
“The kids were wonderful,” he recalls. “They were able to say: ‘You know, that explanation was very good, but it could be better.’” He added that when scientists became silly, the kids let them know. “It’s one thing to be funny, but you don’t have to be silly,” one boy said. “We’re 11—not 7.”
THE PLAYWRIGHT BRINGS SCIENTISTS TO LIFE
To Alda, science is “the world’s greatest detective story and greatest poetry.” Scientists “have figured out how it all fits together—or doesn’t.”
Through his plays, he’s recreated the lives and works of Richard Feynman, the American physicist known for his discoveries in quantum electrodynamics, Albert Einstein, and Marie Curie.
Greene pointed out that Alda’s subjects had “messy personal lives” and asked him if he found that aspect appealing. “Very much so,” he responded. “It’s very important that we understand that scientists are human,” and “to let the story reveal the tragic mistakes they made in their lives.”
He considers Curie his hero:
“Nothing stood in her way, and when things went against her, she didn’t give up. She was a powerhouse.”
THE PERSONAL SIDE…
Alda’s been married for 63 years to Arlene Alda, who is herself multitalented: a gifted musician, photographer, and author. He’s a father and grandfather, and if you watch the video, you can see a joyful sequence as he tap-dances with a grandchild.
More than three years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and he speaks openly about his illness. He’s had a full life since then, he stresses. But with characteristic humor, free of self-pity, he observes:
“When I write, Dr. Parkinson hits keys I don’t want him to, so it’s a collaboration between me and the good doctor.”
After accepting the Kavli award, he was asked what gives him the greatest sense of happiness.
He spoke of contentment “to do what I know how to do well–along those lines, to learn how to do it better makes it even better.” And he expressed gratitude for his loving relationships with his wife, children, and grandchildren–with effortless communication.
He wrote a line in Radiance, the Curie play, that’s meaningful to him. Curie’s relationship with the man in her life was ending, and he couldn’t bear it. “It’s just reality,” Alda had her tell him.
“I operate on that idea: reality is our friend. The more I can understand about the reality of nature, the more comfortable I’ll be…I’m not hoping for a conclusion to the search, but I love…the fact that we keep searching. That’s us, and it’s fun.”
“Reality is our friend.” I can think of no more important message for the American people to hear and internalize today.