FROM M*A*S*H TO SCIENCE COMMUNICATION WHISPERER: THE VERSATILE AND HUMANE ALAN ALDA

Photo from kavlifoundation.org

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…

And now I love to listen to his two podcasts: Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda and Science Clear+Vivid. (They’re available in many different podcast locations.)

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.

The line that follows reads: “We need science more than ever”

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.

Alda says:

“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.

Annie

26 thoughts on “FROM M*A*S*H TO SCIENCE COMMUNICATION WHISPERER: THE VERSATILE AND HUMANE ALAN ALDA

  1. Annie, thanks for sharing this story. Alda is truly a terrific performer and communicator. We love “Mash” but I also remember him in two very funny movies “Four Seasons” with Carol Burnett, Rita Moreno and a terrific cast and “Same Time Next Year” with Ellen Burstyn, in the Neil Simon adaptation. I was unaware of his work that led to this award, so many thanks. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I well remember MASH and always loved Alan Alda, second only to Gary Burghoff in the role of Radar! Thanks for sharing this … I had no idea of all the good he has done. He’s one of those ‘good people’ who go about their work quietly, never feeling a need to toot their own horn.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah, yes, Radar was quite the guy! You’re most welcome, Jill. Alda seems to be one of those rare very accomplished artists who remain totally grounded. He clearly finds it easy to laugh at himself, and though he’s played some mean guys, his podcasts reveal someone who’s a lovely, thoughtful person who cares about others. I don’t think he’d be so devoted to improving communication otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In the late 70’s, I was asked by a client to help out with the hair for a local high school production of “ Nicholas Nickelby”. Upon entering the auditorium where the dress rehearsal would take place, I noticed a man setting up a very professional looking tripod and camera. The delightful young lady that I had just styled asked if I would like to meet her father. He turned around and there was Hawkeye with those twinkling eyes and broad smile! The most amazing thing was the following night at the performance, I said hello and he said, “Hi Fred”… he remembered my name! Such an elegant man. Thanks Annie.. I’m enjoying “Clear + Vivid!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Perhaps it makes sense for an actor to help scientists communicate better. Their work is all about communicating, after all, whereas scientists focus on testing hypotheses against evidence, a rather impersonal endeavor. Kudos to Alda for taking the initiative.

    He recalls asking his teacher “What’s a flame?” Her response: “Oxidation.”

    This kind of thing is always annoying. The purpose of language is (in most cases) to convey meaning, not to show off the fact that you know technical terminology. A teacher should realize that a child, or even a non-specialist adult, probably doesn’t know a word like “oxidation” and that it therefore isn’t a useful answer to the question. She missed a chance to explain that when heat is applied, the carbon in a substance will combine with the oxygen in the air and this combination generates even more heat as a by-product, so that the process feeds on itself. A child might find this intriguing and take a bit of interest in chemistry.

    —catching “an 8-foot shark in an 11-foot rowboat.”

    Wonder if it was chasing a penguin…..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Kudos for sure, Infidel. I find the idea of teaching improv to scientists to humanize their communication ingenious. Alda really has been fusing art and science.

      Thank you for showing…your knowledge of the oxidation process! 🙂 I really like the winning presentation for 11-year-olds, with colorful little dancing atoms, that appears in the video. I guess that shows my mental age when it comes to chemistry.

      Fortunately for the world’s penguin population, I don’t think Alda’s rowboat was anywhere near their vicinity. Unfortunately for Alda & co., the shark was apparently chasing after a bunch of guys with cameras in a rowboat.

      Like

  5. As a longtime fan of M*A*S*H, I’ve heard that Alan Alda was instrumental in encouraging episodes that put the show way ahead of its time. There were episodes that put the kibosh on racism an homophobia, as well as episodes that promoted women’s rights (usually via the Margaret Houlihan character). Indeed, as the father of three daughters, Alda was (and I assume still is) an outspoken feminist. Thanks for this detailed post on a terrific guy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not surprised to hear that, Gail. As Alda not only acted in M*A*S*H, but also wrote and directed some of the episodes, he would have had ample opportunity to insert socially progressive ideas. As for his feminism, I think that’s clear from his describing Marie Curie as his hero and pointing out how determined she had to be to overcome so many obstacles.
      Glad you liked the post—perhaps we can form a “mature groupies” fan club for this terrific guy!

      Like

  6. Loved Hawkeye. My parents were a fan of the show and I became one too. I remember a fellow kid in line for Santa pics at the mall a few decades ago said my mom looked like Hotlips. Annie, very detailed tribute. That scientific communication thing is neat to read. xoxo

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nadine! How good to hear from you! I hope all is well.

      I’d love to know how your mom felt about being compared with Hotlips. Glad you enjoyed learning about Alda’s valuable work.
      Best to you,
      Annie

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t think she heard, and I don’t remember what she said when I likely told her, but probably laughed it off. Outwardly she didn’t take much seriously. I myself remember being surprised and thinking ‘no resemblance at all’… Anyway, yes, valuable work for sure. All the best to you as well, Annie :))

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I have been a fan for a long, long time. Thanks for doing him justice. As an aside: my mother (now gone) hit a prolonged rough patch a while back and ended each of her dispiriting days with an episode of Mash which allowed her to go to bed with a smile. For all the good he has done this world, I owe him for that, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Sounds like a winning combination: a laid back and entertaining comedian teaching scientists, who tend to be a bit stiff and introverted, how to sell their ideas to the average person. No one voice will resonate with everyone but Alda can undoubtedly reach a lot of people. I agree with you Annie that this is a terribly important mission right now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think he’s already had a profound effect through the Alda Center. I recommend his podcasts. He had a discussion with Walter Isaacson about his latest book, The Code Breakers, about Jennifer Doudna, one of two women who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of Crispr’s use in gene editing. (I’ve written about them, and Alda has also interviewed her; that session is on my “to listen” podcast list.) It was fascinating and wide-ranging, encompassing Einstein, whom Isaacson has also written about), et al.

      Liked by 1 person

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