Alan Alda, the actor best known for playing medic Hawkeye Pierce on yesteryear’s TV series M*A*S*H, really likes science. He has played roles on NBC’s West Wing and in major films directed by Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, but it was his work on the lesser-known PBS program Scientific American Frontiers that inspired his passion for science communication. He has become an advocate for increased public literacy in science, and, among other things, helped establish Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science.
On March 7, Alda visited the home of the Large Hadron Collider, CERN. “I’d been reading about it so much, I just wanted to see it,” he said.
He does in fact have a connection with one of the LHC experiments. A few years ago, a fan of his from ATLAS asked if he would draw an Einstein cartoon to go on their fundraising t-shirts. Alda said he spent weeks on the caricature, and he joked that “there would be no ATLAS project without that t-shirt,” which was a hit.
He helped cover the opening of the LHC in 2008 for the BBC, but this week was his first time visiting the laboratory in person. “It’s just a wonderful thing,” he said. “It’s not only an extraordinary scientific achievement, technological achievement, but also a human achievement."
His favorite moment was underground at the ATLAS detector, “standing on that platform, looking at that giant device, and this frightening millisecond I had when I heard that after the collision the particles are flying through the air to get to the detector. They would have been going through me.”
Not to worry, particles produced in LHC collisions are short-lived and all but the most rarely interacting ones would have lost energy in the detector before reaching Alda outside.
While he was filming episodes of Scientific American Frontiers, Alda said, he was most struck by how much benefit he got out of talking to scientists in an informal, conversational atmosphere. “Because it was a conversation, the scientist couldn’t get into lecture mode,” he said. This type of open back-and-forth, telling stories in a way that engages the listener, makes understanding complex ideas possible. “Stories stick with you longer,” he said.
Alda wondered why communication wasn’t being taught alongside the science as a skill as important for the scientist as math or mechanics. “I think it is an essential part of science,” he said, “because you can’t just do the science and not communicate it to other scientists, to the public, to funders, to students... I’ve talked to members of Congress who had no idea what the scientists were telling them during hearings... It’s horrifying.”
Stonybrook picked up Alda’s idea. There, scientists joined the heads of the journalism department to found the Center for Communicating Science. They began to offer workshops to both their students and other groups. Alda even added a new twist from the world of acting to the program – improv for scientists.
“At the heart of acting is listening, and one of the things that you have to do if you’re trying to communicate is to actually listen or be aware of what the other person is getting from it,” he said. A talk given to a sea of blank stares doesn’t help anyone. Improv helps scientists learn to open up and respond to their audiences.
This year Alda is spreading science communication even more – to the public. In an editorial for Science, he announced the Flame Challenge, a contest that asks people to answer, “What is a flame?” so that an 11-year-old could understand. The finalists will indeed be judged by a pool of 11-year-olds and will be eligible to win a VIP trip to the World Science Festival in New York. Entries close on April 2.
Scientists naturally want to teach, Alda said, and the best way to do it is by telling their stories to those who are interested. “It’s so exciting to see real curiosity and see it fed,” he said. “It’s a skill and an art, but scientists are also artists, and they’re capable of that part of it, too.”