Alan Alda and the art of science

At 80, you might think that veteran US actor Alan Alda would be entirely justified in putting his feet up and having a bit of a rest.

His legacy, after all, is impressively cast. The two acting roles for which he is best known – that of Hawkeye Pierce in M.A.S.H., and Arnold Vinick in The West Wing – are on pretty much permanent repeat on TV stations around the globe.

He has scores of other acting credits, starting with The Phil Silvers Show in 1958, and continuing right up to this year, which finds him starring alongside Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi in the television series Horace and Pete.

It is, however, his other long-term role, as a science communicator, that most exercises his mind these days.

“I do think science is under threat and, as a result, the health of the whole country and the culture is under threat,” he told Cosmos. “We depend on science so much. So much surrounds us and comes at us faster than ever, and yet we are not prepared to hear it. We’re not hearing it.”

Alda’s credits as a science communicator are impressive.

For 11 years he hosted the popular US television show, Scientific American Frontiers. He is the eponymous founder of Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and also sits on the board of an AI research body called the Future of Life Institute, alongside Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and cosmologist Max Tegmark.

In 2007 he joined the inaugural board of the World Science Festival, the annual celebration of all things evidence-based started by string theorist Brian Greene and his journalist partner Tracy Day. Alda remains deeply involved, not only in the festival’s planning, but also in its execution.

This year, the event will take place in Brisbane, Australia, in March, and New York, in June. At both events, Alda will present Dear Albert, a stage work he wrote based on letters written by Albert Einstein.

From some perspectives, there are some remarkable similarities between Greene the academic and Alda the actor. Both have developed careers that encompass science-themed performance and on-air commentary. Both share a commitment to making the sometimes abstruse narratives of research accessible to the public.

And both had fathers who were vaudeville showmen. Strangely, though, they have never really discussed the coincidence.

“You know,” said Alda, “When I talk with Brian we mostly talk about science. He’s such a good communicator, I don’t like to waste a minute of our time together, so I’m always asking him to explain something that is very difficult for me to understand. We don’t talk about show business much.”

In a recent interview with this magazine, Greene credited his father with igniting his curiosity about the Universe. Alda, too, acknowledges a paternal influence in his love of science.

“I watched him from the wings all through my childhood when he was on stage, and on the set when he was making movies. It had a tremendous influence on the path I eventually took,” he said.

“But it’s interesting. My father also had curiosity and attacked things in a thorough way. He used to tell me his favourite book was called Men In White, which was about people who did early work with microbes. It’s funny – microbes turned out to be something that continue to fascinate me.”

As an actor, Alda Senior would immerse himself in his parts – a strategy also adopted by his son, and one which in once turned out to be remarkably useful while making Scientific American Frontiers.

While filming a segment in the mountains of Chile, Alda fell suddenly ill. Finding a doctor turned out to be rather difficult, but his team eventually delivered him into the care of a young medico, who turned out to be a big fan. The doctor discovered that part of Alda’s small intestine had necrotised and would need to be removed.

I wanted to do that science show because I wanted to hear from the scientists themselves what they were doing.

To the doctor’s great surprise, Alda proceeded to discuss the required surgery – known as an end-to-end anastomosis – in great detail. The procedure, it turned out, had featured in an episode of M.A.S.H., and Alda had studied it in great detail in order to understand his lines.

“Like most kids I was amateur scientist when I was six years old. I was always trying to do experiments and see if I could get something to blow up,” he said.

After graduating from college, reading about science became a favourite pastime, although it was an interest that had to fall into second place behind his burgeoning acting career. So when in 1994 he was offered the opportunity to host Scientific American’s television show he jumped at it with long-suppressed teenage enthusiasm.

“The fun in that for me was that I could spend the day with scientists, getting them to tell me all about what their work was,” he said. “That was fascinating, really thrilling.

“I wanted to do that science show because I wanted to hear from the scientists themselves what they were doing. It’s a wonderful thing when they can communicate with clarity – but not dumb it down for us. I’m not interested in that. That doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help science and it doesn’t help the people listening.”

Scientific American Frontiers ended its 15-season run in 2005. Since then, Alda – easily still as active as he was when he first donned scrubs and called himself Hawkeye – has largely switched focus from reporting on what scientists are doing to mentoring them in order to let them tell their own stories.

“I spend a lot of my time helping scientists learn to communicate better so that we can hear from them what it is they do,” he said. “We need to hear from them about the excitement they feel when they’re doing it. It’s a very engaging process, and it needs to be communicated to the rest of us.”

World Science Festival, Brisbane: 9-13 March –

World Science Festival, NYC: 1-5 June.

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