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.