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Odds and Ends: Lighting a Communications Fire
Odds and Ends: Lighting a Communications Fire

Actor Alan Alda uses improv techniques to coax clear communication from scientists

Rick Tulka

As the star of M*A*S*H, one of the most critically acclaimed and highest-rated U.S. television programs ever produced, Alan Alda won Emmy Awards for acting, writing, and directing. Now he's using his craft to help professionals communicate about one of his other passions: science. Alda's love for the subject harks back to his childhood, but it's an interest he's also nurtured professionally, including as host of PBS's Scientific American Frontiers from 1993 to 2005. Today, as a visiting professor at New York's Stony Brook University—which named its Center for Communicating Science after him in 2013—Alda is using improvisational theater techniques to teach science and medical professionals how to discuss their work in a clear and relatable manner.

Where does your passion for science come from?

I guess it comes from my childhood. I was always experimenting, hoping that by combining things I found around the house I could get something to blow up. I was an inventor too. I designed a Lazy Susan for a refrigerator so you wouldn't have to reach in the back for the milk. You could spin the tray, and the milk would fly across the room at you.

Why has helping scientists communicate become a cause for you?

Because I love science, and I want to understand scientists when they tell us what they're figuring out. Understanding the way things work is thrilling, and I want them to share that thrill with the rest of us.

How did you come up with the idea for the Flame Challenge?

I was writing a guest editorial for Science magazine on communication, and about halfway through I realized I wasn't following my own advice. I hadn't been personal. I was just laying out the facts and numbers. My eyes were even glazing over. Didn't I have a human story to tell, I wondered? I suddenly realized I did. When I was 11, I was fascinated with the flame at the end of candle. I asked my teacher, "What's a flame? What's going on in there?" All she said was, "Oxidation." It was just another word—it gave me nothing. So, my own desire for better communication of science was embedded in that story. By the end of the article, I realized I had a contest. I asked scientists to send in entries explaining a flame to 11-year-olds—and real 11-year-olds would be the judges. Since then, we've changed the question every year, and a couple of thousand scientists—and 100,000 kids—from all over the world have taken part. The 2016 question is "What is sound?"

Why do scientists struggle to discuss their work with clarity?

Every field has its jargon. But spraying words and concepts at people, thinking it's their job to understand, doesn't add up to communication. It's our job to be clear. This is often a challenge for scientists because a different way of thinking and relating is required for good communication, and this isn't taught. We're changing that.

What's the most compelling scientific book you've ever read?

The Selfish Gene by [evolutionary biologist] Richard Dawkins.

How is the dearth of media coverage of science affecting society?

Without a healthy diet of science and without reinforcing the habit of evidence-based thinking, we're liable to start doing intellectual time travel, and we'll all be living in the Middle Ages again.

If you were to work in a scientific field, what would it be?

I couldn't decide. I love the brain, and I love physics. But I love microbes too. Don't you just love those little guys?

—Interview by Theresa Walker




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