Science, in the Words of Alan Alda

The actor best known for his roles in M*A*S*H and The West Wing talks about his work as a teacher.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

On a recent visit to the MIT museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a familiar voice broke through the raucous jabber of the burgeoning young scientists exploring the university’s robotics exhibit. I knew the voice well, as it has been a part of my life since childhood. I remember hearing it in our kitchen, the ever-present accompaniment to my mother’s dinnertime preparations. Back then, that voice took on the persona of Hawkeye Pierce, the witty, womanizing surgeon at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077 on my mother’s favorite show, M*A*S*H.

As I looked around the museum for the source of the voice, my 16-year-old son, Ben, pointed to the television screen in the corner. "Look," he said, "It’s that guy from The West Wing and The Aviator."

Ben may recognize him from his acting, but it was Alan Alda’s work as a teacher that caught my attention on that Saturday morning at the MIT Museum. As he interviewed a robotics expert on advances in artificial intelligence, Alda deftly guided the scientist toward a clear description of robotics design and construction, one that even the youngest viewers in the audience could understand.

Alda has hosted several scientific series, including Scientific American Frontiers, The Human Spark, dedicated to the question of what makes us human, and most recently, Brains on Trial, an investigation into the role brain science plays in the American criminal justice system. He has channeled physicist Richard Feynman in the play QED, and his play Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, will premiere in London this year.

Alda’s love of science and communication has earned him many honors, including the Sagan Award for increasing the public appreciation of science and the Scientific American Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, he serves as a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, a role that builds on his many years in science education and journalism.

Once we’d taken care of the obligatory pleasantries and introductions, and settled into a discussion about his work with the the Center for Communicating Science, his eyes lit up, his cheeks flushed, and it became clear that teaching and communicating the beauty of science to others is a role he truly adores.

We began with a discussion of the Flame Challenge, as I’ve had my eye on its February 13 deadline and have been sorely tempted to enter it. The challenge poses a delicious, but deceptively simple, question—such as "What is color?" or "What is fire?" or "What is time?"—and invites scientists (or anyone else who would like to give the challenge a shot) to come up with answers directed at an 11-year-old audience. This year’s question is "What is sleep?" and will be judged by thousands of real, live 11-year-olds from classrooms across the country:

Jessica Lahey: As the mother of an inquisitive 11-year-old, I think your decision to use that age as your target audience for the Flame Challenge is inspired. I’m curious though; why 11? What’s special about that age?

Alan Alda: I picked it by accident! That’s how old I was when I asked the question "What is a flame?" and it turns out that’s why I asked it when I did. Age 11 is when we start asking these sort of big-picture questions and want real answers. Plus, 11-year-olds are so great; they don’t want to be talked down to. One kid articulated the 11-year-old approach perfectly when he said, "You can be entertaining, but you don’t have to be silly. We are 11, not 7."

Part of the reason the kids seem to like the Flame Challenge is that it gives them power. We’re not saying to them, "You are the fly and I’m sticking these pins of knowledge into you," and "You will learn what I tell you to learn." I don’t know why we do that. We shouldn’t be subjecting kids to learning; they need some power over the process. The Flame Challenge gives them that power—to explore and be critical of the information they are given, and they are happy to do that when we let them.

What I did not realize at first is that that judging the Flame Challenge would become a real educational tool for the kids. We vet the answers to make sure the kids are not getting bad science, of course, and then the kids judge the entries. They judge them based on communication, but also on content, so in order to judge the entries well, they read a bunch of submissions and become familiar enough with the subject to know if they are not getting enough information. In the course of getting answers from several angles, they begin to be able to say, "Well, this is entertaining, but it’s not informative." These kids are really concerned about the content, about being informed, not just entertained.

Lahey: It’s obvious to anyone watching your science shows that you adore thinking about how the world works, but what is it about the communication of science that has so engaged your enthusiasm for the past couple of decades?

Alda: After Scientific American Frontiers ended, I could see that when scientists were in conversation, they could make science in a personal way, both in terms of the vocabulary and in terms of the tone. There was human interaction. But if they did not have someone like me pulling it out of them in a personal way, there was a tendency to slip into lecture mode. I thought, wouldn’t it be an interesting idea to train scientists to be good communicators while we train them to be scientists?

In spite of the good journalism that exists to mediate between the scientists and the public, scientists need to be good communicators in order to talk effectively to journalists, grant directors or Congress.  So whenever I was at a university where they taught science, I’d talk to someone in charge and suggest a program in communication for scientists. Nobody was interested. The only people that picked up on the idea were at Stony Brook, specifically Howard Schneider, who runs the journalism department.

We use some innovative methods, such as improvisational theater, not to teach scientists to be funny and make things up on the spot, but to help put them in contact with the person across from them. Improvisation teaches scientists to become habituated to listening, and opening up to another person. They have to observe the other person and totally be focused on them and pick up the signals and use interpersonal cues, which is the first step toward empathy and theory of mind. In improvisation, you’re actually tracking what’s going on in the other person’s head, so you can give them and if you can’t do that, I don’t think you can communicate well.

Lahey: From your writing I gather you have a real disdain for imprecise communication, and a dislike of euphemisms.

Alda: Did I say that somewhere? I think about that a lot, but I don’t remember writing it down in those specific terms.

Lahey: You did—in Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, you said that when your father had a stroke during a surgery and you were talking to him…

Alda: Oh, yeah, when they told me he was "very deep."

Lahey: … You didn’t understand what "very deep" meant. After you realized the doctor was telling you in a ham-handed way that your father was in a coma, you said you were "angry with the euphemism" and wondered why no one had simply said the word "coma."

Alda: [With a big smile] Yes. You’re right. I hate euphemisms.

Lahey: Well, then, in the interest of clarity, I did something a little weird in my notes on your work. I made a little formula based on what you posit makes for good communication and teaching, and it looks like this:

Content + Clarity + Enthusiasm + Relationships = Learning.

Scientists will come to teaching with a solid understand their content, one hopes, and, with practice and guidance, can learn clarity. And one would hope they have enthusiasm for their subject matter, but how do you teach scientists about the importance of relationships in communication and learning?

Alda: We try to help them see that relationships, and how we listen to each other as we form those relationships, is everything. Listening is what lets things happen— whether that’s on stage, or in the classroom. Listening—really listening—to another person, even when you don’t agree with them, can feel dangerous, as if you are making yourself vulnerable to that other person. But that’s what allows a conversation to take place, rather than a debate. Besides, you avoid teachers you don’t trust, right? It feels as if they are selling you something, like they are using you for their purposes.

A teacher I know who really works hard to make himself known to his students told me one of his students said to him, "when you teach us things, I try extra hard, because I know you really care." He really works on his relationships with his students, and he listens to them. He is connected to his students in a way that makes everything he says to them more palatable, more important and more relevant to their shared experience. That’s what great teaching and communication look like.

* * *

Alda suddenly looked down at his watch and realized we’d chatting for over an hour and a half. He said he hated to shut down our conversation but was terribly sorry; he was going to be late for his next appointment if he didn’t get going. He gave me a warm handshake and a smile, and we went our separate ways.

Later that night, I settled into my hotel room with some Chinese takeout, eager to catch the finale of The Colbert Show and transcribe some of my less-legible interview notes. As I slurped down the last of my dan dan noodles to the lilting tones of Colbert’s star-studded sing-along, my lunch date appeared on the screen, arm in arm with Corey Booker and George Lucas.

As excuses for go for cutting out on an interview, that’s a darn good one. Apology accepted, Mr. Alda. Apology accepted.