Actor Alan Alda attends the 40th International Emmy Awards in New York City.

Actor Alan Alda attends the 40th International Emmy Awards in New York City.

Actor Alan Alda is best known for his TV and movies roles. He played Hawkeye Pierce on the television show MASH; later, he played Sen. Owen Brewster in the film “The Aviator,” which won him an Academy-Award nomination. But Alda also has an alternate career: Science advocate. He’s long had a passion for biology, physics and chemistry and has several science shows, including the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers” and “The Human Spark.” Alan Alda joins us to talk about his passion for science and efforts to help scientists communicate better with the public.

Guests

  • Alan Alda Actor, author and science advocate. He has won seven Emmy Awards, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in "The Aviator." He is author of the bestselling memoir, "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed." He hosts the PBS science program, "Scientific American Frontiers." He is a visiting professor at Stony Brook University's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Video: What Is Color?

Alan Alda and the Alda Center for Communicating Science challenge scientists each year to explain scientific concepts to a group of 11-year-olds. This video, by Dianna Cowern, won the 2014 challenge for her explanation of color.

What is Color? from Physics Girl on Vimeo.

Alan Alda: Think Like A Scientist

A listener asks: What scientific concept needs better public understanding? Alan Alda’s answer: We’d understand almost everything better if we thought more like scientists.

Video: "We Need To Catch Up" With Women In Science

Women aren’t turned off from science – they’re turned away, Alan Alda​ says.

“We need to catch up.”

Full Video

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Actor Alan Alda has interviewed hundreds of scientists as host of the PBS series "Scientific American Frontiers." He says he uses his training as an actor to help scientists learn improvisation techniques to better engage their students and the public. Alan Alda joins me in the studio. You can watch live video of our conversation with Alan Alda at drshow.org.

  • 11:07:26

    MS. DIANE REHMYou can join us by phone at 800-433-8850. You can send an email to drshow@wamu.org. You can follow us in Facebook or Twitter. Alan Alda, how good to see you again.

  • 11:07:42

    MR. ALAN ALDAHow good to see you, too, except you got me scared when you said we're on video. Now, I can slouch. I usually slouch on radio.

  • 11:07:51

    REHMWell, you know, I have to ask you about that photograph that many of us saw in one of those supermarket tabloids saying Alan Alda is dying. I'm so glad to see you looking so well.

  • 11:08:09

    ALDAWell, thank you. You know, it's interesting. Those tabloids really regard us not as people, but as cartoon characters and they can just manipulate. You know, it's so funny. They said his friends, meaning me, his friends are urging him to tell his secrets and then they list the secrets which are taken from one of my books. So it's not much of a secret.

  • 11:08:36

    REHMBut to put on the headline, Alan Alda...

  • 11:08:41

    ALDASad last days, I know.

  • 11:08:42

    REHMSad last days.

  • 11:08:44

    ALDAWell, it's just a -- it's really a joke. I mean, I think that's the same newspaper, so-called newspaper, that had a headline once, "Nun Gives Birth To Two-Headed Alien." So...

  • 11:08:59

    REHMSo there you are. And your poor wife was upset.

  • 11:09:02

    ALDAYeah, she was a little upset. But as soon as she heard me laughing about it, she got over it.

  • 11:09:07

    REHMGood. Well, I want you to know that every time my son comes to visit me, he's 54. Every time he comes to visit me, the first thing he does is go into the library, turn on the television and watch reruns of "M.A.S.H." It's still his favorite.

  • 11:09:31

    ALDASo he doesn't talk to you that much.

  • 11:09:35

    REHMHe loves the program.

  • 11:09:36

    ALDAWell, that's great. Thank you.

  • 11:09:37

    REHMHe's memorized just about every word.

  • 11:09:40

    ALDAYou know, people say to me, I know every line of that show and I say that's better than I could do when I shot it 'cause I never knew my lines.

  • 11:09:48

    REHMYou probably made up half the lines.

  • 11:09:51

    ALDAWell, I wrote about 10 percent of "M.A.S.H.," but even when I wrote it, I couldn't remember. You know, the trouble is when you write it, you have rewritten it so many times. Then, when you try to say it, there are about 10 different versions in your mouth ready to come out.

  • 11:10:07

    REHMWell, whatever you wrote, it all came out beautifully.

  • 11:10:12

    ALDAWell, thank you.

  • 11:10:12

    REHMIt really is quite a program. But now, you've come to Washington to give a lecture and a workshop at the National Academy of Sciences. Tell us why.

  • 11:10:25

    ALDAWe're very excited about this because these are such top institutions, the National Academy of Science and the National Science Foundation. And this has all been made possible by the Kavli Foundation, which has been very generous to us. The center that I helped start, which is based at Stony Brook University in New York, is now called the Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science and we've come to Washington to the National Academy of Sciences to do a two-day workshop.

  • 11:10:59

    ALDAAnd this is so exciting because this is a workshop in helping scientists communicate about their work in a way that those of us in the public can understand it because it's clear and vivid and related to our lives and not in the technical jargon that the work is done and usually communicated among scientists, but made available to all of us. But what's wonderful about this workshop, it's really exciting to me, is that these are the leaders of these organizations taking the workshop in the same way that we usually work with graduate students and, you know, PhD students.

  • 11:11:38

    ALDABut now, the leaders of science in the country have begun taking the classes.

  • 11:11:43

    REHMTell me what they need to learn.

  • 11:11:47

    ALDAYou know, it's, I think, the most fundamental thing about communicating is reading the mind of the person you're talking to because you need to know where they are when you start talking with them. You need to know -- it's the old saying, know your audience.

  • 11:12:05

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:12:05

    ALDABut what we do is we give the people we're working with a chance to go through exercises and games based on improvisation exercises that give them a chance to get so familiar with the other people that they're working with, they read the signals, they read the clues coming off the face and the voice of the other person so they know where their mind is at every moment. And when they communicate with them in a lecture hall, they have an intimate relationship with them.

  • 11:12:37

    ALDAThey're not talking to a vast unfaced crowd.

  • 11:12:42

    REHMSo I'm sure that you have favorites within the scientific community that you believe communicate very well.

  • 11:12:54

    ALDAWell, there are people that the country has recognized like Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson is loved. There are many -- you know, something we found, though, is that we've worked with senior scientists all across the country who are now communicating with the public and often very, very well. And even they improve when they take these classes.

  • 11:13:24

    REHMTell me how improvisation figures into it.

  • 11:13:28

    ALDAWell, the thing is, it's very important to distinguish what we do from what most people think of as improvisation because most of us are exposed to improvisation as a form of comedy, you know, "Second City" or "Saturday Night Live," or the television show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" The whole point there is to get a laugh every 15 seconds.

  • 11:13:51

    REHMSure.

  • 11:13:51

    ALDAAnd that there are a lot of gags. We don't do anything like that. This is based on the work of a woman called Viola Spolin, whose son actually founded "Second City." But her work was very pure. It was about 70 years ago she started doing this improvisation for the theater, it called, or improvising games. And what these games do is put you in contact with the other player, in such contact that you actually can almost read their minds.

  • 11:14:23

    ALDAIn fact, some of the early exercises, like a mirroring exercise where I become your mirror and whatever your mirror, I'm doing it at the same moment you're doing it so I really have to incorporate signals from you that usually go -- they go passed us. They go unrecognized in normal consciousness. But I get so tuned into you that I can do it no matter what you're doing. And then, you do no matter what I'm doing and then there's no leader at all.

  • 11:14:55

    ALDAAnd a lot of people thought that wasn't possible. And I've just talked a couple of days ago to a scientist who did research on it and within milliseconds, they're doing the same thing. They're both leading. So when you get that tuned into another person, then you're in a position to know if they understand what you're saying to them. You can just see it on their face.

  • 11:15:17

    REHMCertainly part of the problem that I have noticed with some scientists and not just scientists...

  • 11:15:27

    ALDANo, it's true of everybody.

  • 11:15:29

    REHM...who've come onto the program is that they use words that may be familiar to them, but don't recognize that they may not be familiar to their audience.

  • 11:15:45

    ALDAYeah. You know, this is captured by a term that is known as "the curse of knowledge" that was invented by a couple of economists a couple of decades ago. And the curse of knowledge, it's a strange term because knowledge shouldn't be a curse. It's a wonderful thing to have. But the curse of knowledge is when you don't remember what it's like not to know something at the depth you know it or in the terms you know it.

  • 11:16:16

    ALDASometimes, it's just too complex. You understand all the moving parts. The person you're talking to doesn't. But you assume they do because you know it. So if you know it, surely they do. And sometimes, it's an ordinary word. It's a word used to mean something else. There was a meeting of scientists in Washington a couple of years ago, a group of nano scientists and a group of neuro scientists and they were going to collaborate to understand the brain better.

  • 11:16:45

    ALDAThey couldn't agree on what the word probe meant. Probe meant something different to each group and they had arguments about it. You can't use a probe now in this situation because it meant something different. So you never really -- you can't assume that they know what you know. And it's no dishonor to explain it in simple terms. You know, one of the most amazing examples of communications I had when I was in Chile and I had to have part of my intestines removed in an emergency operation.

  • 11:17:26

    ALDAAnd the doctor said it to me in such clear terms that there was no doubt in my mind that he had to do it. He said, some of your intestine has gone bad and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together. Now, he could've said that in...

  • 11:17:42

    REHMHe could've made it very complicated.

  • 11:17:44

    ALDAHe could've said it in words that were Latinate and that I would never get. And by the way, that's not only clear, it's absolutely accurate.

  • 11:17:55

    REHMAlan Alda, he's a seven-time Emmy Award-winning actor, my favorite on the series, "M.A.S.H." He's here in Washington giving a lecture to the National Academy of Science and the National Science Foundation. We'll be back after a short break.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. Alan Alda is with me and I know many of you will want to join our conversation. Alan Alda, before the break, you were talking about that experience in Chile, where the doctor explained to you in very direct terms that he would have to operate because he was going to have to remove part of your intestine. You almost died. You said to me, after we went off the air, that you have found yourself really changed as a result of nearly dying.

  • 11:20:49

    ALDAThat's true.

  • 11:20:50

    ALDAHow have you changed?

  • 11:20:51

    ALDAWell, although it was 12 years ago, I still am really aware that I could be dead now and instead of that, I'm alive. And things that I've accomplished, things that I've worked on and enjoyed -- including time with my family, with my wife -- are things I know are a bonus. And I really -- I think I feel impelled to make the most of the time I have left with this second chance I have. It's a wonderful thing, oddly enough, to almost die and not die because you have a chance to appreciate what you have in a way that you never could before. I was always glad to be alive but not this much.

  • 11:21:37

    REHMYou think we all take life sort of for granted.

  • 11:21:41

    ALDAWe do. It's amazing that we're all going to die and we act as if it's, you know. I have a friend who said this wonderful thing. She said, "We know we're going to die but not in our lifetime." You know?

  • 11:21:54

    REHMSo we just...

  • 11:21:55

    ALDAWe just, we believe it's not going to happen.

  • 11:21:57

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:21:57

    ALDAWe're just totally immune to the thought of this ultimate reality that every single one of us will go through. So this does wake you up to that. And I mean this Center for Communicating Science was a dream of mine maybe 15 years ago, but the idea that it's now flourishing like this -- wouldn't have happened if that doctor hadn't saved me in Chile.

  • 11:22:23

    REHMNow, but on the other hand, you have had an interest in science, in biology, chemistry, since you were quite young. So though you went the acting route, have you maintained that interest all along?

  • 11:22:42

    ALDAOh, I do. I actually don't read -- I pretty much don't read anything but about science.

  • 11:22:48

    REHMReally?

  • 11:22:48

    ALDAI read the -- several science journals, every issue. I read books about it. I joined a fiction book club -- a book club that only reads novels -- to force myself to read novels because I don't read them ordinarily. And there's a lot of serious, good writing going on there. The only trouble is -- what I have against novels is, you can just tell they're making it up.

  • 11:23:16

    ALDAYou know, I want reality. I really get -- I thrive on reality. But it's another kind of reality. It's reality once removed when it's really well written. The funny thing is, when it's really well written, you know it's not made up. Even though it's the product of imagination, you know it represents...

  • 11:23:36

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:23:36

    ALDA...some deep reality.

  • 11:23:37

    REHMYeah. How about your parents? Were they encouraging of your scientific interests?

  • 11:23:46

    ALDAWell, I never studied science formally. I wish I had. I was an amateur inventor. And as a little boy, I did what I thought were experiments. And they were tolerant of that.

  • 11:23:57

    REHMSuch as?

  • 11:23:59

    ALDAWell I would -- used to mix my mother's face powder and toothpaste to see if I could get it to blow up. I didn't -- I couldn't make an explosion happen. It was very discouraging. I had the wrong ingredients, you know? There are things in the household I now know that will blow up if you put them together.

  • 11:24:16

    REHMThat's right.

  • 11:24:17

    ALDAFortunately, I was too young to reach them on the shelf.

  • 11:24:20

    REHMBut you continued your interest and...

  • 11:24:24

    ALDAYeah.

  • 11:24:24

    REHM...even as you continued with your acting career.

  • 11:24:29

    ALDABut I'm suited -- I -- see, my life has worked out perfectly. What I've learned as an actor, especially what I learned studying improvisation and then teaching improvisation, it turns out is vital to communication. So I can bring together my interest in science and my love of science and my love of what scientists do -- I'm awed by them -- and I can bring together with that interest, what I've learned as an actor. Not to turn scientists into actors, not to turn them into comedians but to help them bring the true self in them out so that the public can connect to a real human being and not a walking set of facts.

  • 11:25:15

    REHMWe do have a dearth of understanding about science as ordinary citizens, in part, I think because many of us may be put off by the language or the failure on the part of those trying to teach us science...

  • 11:25:39

    ALDARight.

  • 11:25:39

    REHM...that they can't get through to us.

  • 11:25:44

    ALDAI agree with you. And it's not just that they don't have enough facts to understand the science. Sometimes there isn't the same appreciation for evidence or the -- or an understanding of the way science moves forward because there's sometimes impatience on the part of the public. That, last year, you told me red wine was good for me, now you tell me it might not be so good. You know? That, can't they make up their minds?

  • 11:26:11

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:26:12

    ALDAYou know, that the...

  • 11:26:12

    REHMRight.

  • 11:26:12

    ALDAThat's a...

  • 11:26:13

    REHMOr aspirin or, you know, the things we were just talking about.

  • 11:26:18

    ALDARight, there's a long list of these things. And the thing that -- one of the things that the public will get used to, I think -- once they hear scientists communicating in a plain way with them, in a vivid way -- is that science, with current research, whatever the research is, isn't looking for "the truth." It's looking for as much of the truth as they can get now. And they're going to find out more tomorrow. And that'll open a whole bunch of other doors, each one marked with a bit question mark. There's -- every time you discover something, you realize there's a lot you don't know and you have to look for more. And sometimes it seems to contradict what you said before. But it's not like they're coming up with the final answer to everything.

  • 11:27:07

    ALDAIt's an adventure. That's what I find exciting about it. That's why I keep reading it. Because I'd love to read, "Oh, we thought this ten years ago and now we see more deeply into it. And it's only this under certain circumstances. Now we see how it's affected by other circumstances." And that kind of -- look at the -- what we're going through with Pluto, how it's captured everybody's imagination.

  • 11:27:31

    REHMYes. Yes.

  • 11:27:33

    ALDAAnd partly because they changed their mind about whether or not it was a planet.

  • 11:27:37

    REHMI'm not sure they really have changed their mind yet.

  • 11:27:40

    ALDAYes, they have people on both sides of it.

  • 11:27:44

    REHMWell, that's the point that I keep hearing people saying, "Well, I'm not so sure yet." But the other issue is that science, exactly as you say, is an ongoing process.

  • 11:28:01

    ALDAIt is.

  • 11:28:02

    REHMSo that those involved in it don't -- or I'll put it another way -- are reluctant to say where we are because tomorrow it may be different.

  • 11:28:17

    ALDAI think there's a -- sometimes, in order to make it clear that it's -- that they've discovered something that seems to be a big breakthrough, they don't want to exaggerate it too much, because they don't want to say, "This is the way it is now for all time." Because it always raises more questions. But I find that tantalizing. I want to -- it's like listening to rumors in a way. You know, "Well, where did you hear that? What do you -- how -- is that really true? How do you know?" It's exciting to -- nothing's more interesting than gossip. When we get together and gossip about nature and try to pin nature down and figure out what's really going on, that's -- it excites some of the same interest in us.

  • 11:29:03

    REHMI want to ask you about a little bit of gossip I heard. And that is that you had kind of a disappointing experience when you were 11 years old...

  • 11:29:18

    ALDAOh.

  • 11:29:18

    REHM...with a science teacher. Tell us about...

  • 11:29:22

    ALDAIt wasn't even a science teacher. It was my regular teacher. I don't -- I can't remember who she was. But -- and she was doing the best she could. But I was fascinated when I was 11 with the flame at the end of a candle.

  • 11:29:34

    REHMRight.

  • 11:29:34

    ALDAAnd I really -- I couldn't figure out what it was. It was hot. You could put your finger through it. It didn't have any substance. What's going on in there, I wondered. So I asked my teacher, "What is that? What's a flame?" And she said, "Oxidation." That was it. That's the whole answer I got. It's like calling it by another name.

  • 11:29:54

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:29:54

    ALDAYeah, oh, that's Fred.

  • 11:29:56

    REHMYeah. Right.

  • 11:29:57

    ALDASo, that -- I never really found out what was going on in there. But when I was writing an article for the magazine, Science, about the importance of communication, I thought, I'm not following my own advice here. I should start off with something personal so that the reader can relate to me, to what my -- what I'm trying to say here. And I remembered this story. And I told the story. And by the end of the article, I said, "How about if we turn this into a contest? And how about if all the scientists reading this try to explain what a flame is so that an 11-year-old can understand it. And the winner of the contest will be judged by real 11-year-olds."

  • 11:30:42

    REHMAh.

  • 11:30:43

    ALDAThat's the best part.

  • 11:30:44

    REHMWonderful.

  • 11:30:45

    ALDAIt turn -- I did it to give the scientists a chance to see how hard it is to say something complicated in a -- in an available way. It turned out to be a wonderful learning experience for the kids. Because they were now in charge of the learning process. They had to understand enough about what a flame was so they could judge how good the submissions were. And the submissions were coming in attacking the problem from different angles. So they were getting a three-dimensional view of what a flame is.

  • 11:31:15

    REHMHow many submissions did you get?

  • 11:31:18

    ALDAWe got about 800 submissions the first year.

  • 11:31:22

    REHMWow.

  • 11:31:22

    ALDAAnd thousands of kids. Now, I think, maybe 100,000 kids have been -- have taken part in this because we're now into the fourth year. Every year we change the question.

  • 11:31:34

    REHMI see.

  • 11:31:35

    ALDAThe first year, it came from a real 11-year-old, which was me. And ever since then, it comes from current 11-year-olds. So they've asked, "What is time?" This last year was, "What is sleep?" And I -- it was wonderful. I learned so much about sleep.

  • 11:31:51

    REHMFascinating.

  • 11:31:51

    ALDASometimes, I learned it listening to the kids while they judged the entries.

  • 11:31:56

    REHMWell, tell me what the best explanation was of what is it?

  • 11:32:03

    ALDAYou know what? If you go to flamechallenge.org, O-R-G.

  • 11:32:07

    REHMFlamechallenge.org.

  • 11:32:10

    ALDAYou'll see the winning entries. Some are written and some are video. And they're so good, they're so interesting. And you'll get -- if you don't get it through flamechallenge.org, you could go to centerforcommunicatingscience.org.

  • 11:32:23

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:32:24

    ALDAOr aldacenter.org.

  • 11:32:26

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:32:26

    ALDAThere's all kinds of ways to get to it.

  • 11:32:27

    REHMWe'll put these -- some of these onto our website.

  • 11:32:33

    ALDAOh, great.

  • 11:32:34

    REHMAnd make sure that people look at them. But what a fascinating way to bring kids into it.

  • 11:32:43

    ALDAWell, you know, it's all based on what I think we've found as the fundamental element of communication, which is connection with the audience. And some of it's, oddly enough -- I think this is surprising -- when we teach, we start out by teaching improv. Then we talk about distilling your message. And then we get into various kinds of writing. The funny thing is, even when you're writing and trying to make something clear to the reader, you're making use of what you learned in the improvisation classes. And so it's not only improvisation to help you be present for a live audience that you're talking to, it even works when you're writing because when I -- I'll tell you in a minute.

  • 11:33:29

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Give me an example.

  • 11:33:35

    ALDAOkay. An example is very basic. If I'm writing something for you -- and I don't know you because you're an anonymous reader -- but I'm -- but I have a reader in mind, maybe somebody I know and love, somebody whose awareness of what I'm writing about I can nail, I can pin down, you know, because I know you. So when I write sentence number one, I'm preparing your mind for sentence number two. And at some point in the process, maybe in the rewrite process -- maybe not when I'm getting it down in a first draft, but in the rewrite process -- I take the place of you. I become you. I play your -- the part of you.

  • 11:34:21

    ALDAAnd in playing your part, I'm reading this and I'm thinking, I'm not ready to hear this. I need something that's a transition to this. This doesn't make sense. Whoever wrote this is suffering from the curse of knowledge. You know? And you can actually use these principles, borne of improvisation, because it has to do with, in essence, reading the mind of the person you're with.

  • 11:34:45

    REHMJust a fascinating approach, it seems to me. And one that could help not only scientists but politicians.

  • 11:34:58

    ALDAOh. You know, there is hardly a field. Every time we go out and give -- we've done workshops all over the country. We've gone -- this past year we did 67 workshops at universities and medical schools -- a lot of medical schools are getting our help. And every time we go someplace, somebody says, "You've got to teach economists this." Or somebody says, "You don't know what it's like to talk to a philosopher." I had -- I was playing tennis one day and a guy came up to me and he said, "Keep doing what you're doing. I'm a physicist but my wife teaches art history and I can't understand what she's saying."

  • 11:35:40

    REHMIsn't that...

  • 11:35:41

    ALDAArt history.

  • 11:35:41

    REHMReally?

  • 11:35:42

    ALDAYeah.

  • 11:35:43

    REHMReally?

  • 11:35:43

    ALDAEverybody has their own jargon. My -- show business has its jargon. I told the folks last night at the talk I gave, I said, "We have jargon too. If you were on a movie set and I said to you, "Go to the century and bring back the century. But not the one with the gobo on it. Bring back the one with the kook on it. And while you're at it, bring me a half apple." You wouldn't know what I was talking -- those are all real terms for real things.

  • 11:36:07

    REHMWhat do they mean?

  • 11:36:08

    ALDAOh, now you want to know.

  • 11:36:09

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:36:09

    ALDAA century is a century stand on which sometimes you put lights or things that block light. A gobo blocks the light. It's a -- makes a shade.

  • 11:36:22

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:36:23

    ALDAAnd a kook comes from the director, George Kookelaris (sp?) who used to have patterns -- a piece of cardboard cut in a pattern so when you shine a light through it, it makes a pattern on the wall...

  • 11:36:34

    REHMHuh.

  • 11:36:35

    ALDA...like leaves, as though it's coming -- light through the window. And I think that's where the word "kooky" came from because it gave you an odd pattern. And a half apple is based on the idea that there are things called apple boxes on the set -- things sturdy. They -- they're the shape of an apple box...

  • 11:36:53

    REHMOh, sure.

  • 11:36:54

    ALDA...but it's sturdy. You can stand on it or you can put equipment on it. And a half apple is half the size. But, look, these are all simple things. But we have special terms for them for two reasons. One, we know what they mean and it's a quick way to say it. But the other reason is, it makes us feel like hot stuff to talk in a way nobody else can. And that's how -- the basis of a lot of jargon. And we have to remember that the other people need to hear it so they can get it.

  • 11:37:20

    REHMSort of the way I talk about promos and intros and out throws.

  • 11:37:25

    ALDAAnd out throws, yeah.

  • 11:37:27

    REHMAnd we'll take a short break here. When we come back, time for you to have a chance to put forward your questions, comments, for Alan Alda. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMWelcome back. You know Alan Alda, first and foremost, as an actor. But he is also a science educator, helping those who are in the scientific profession learn to communicate more clearly to understand their audience better. And here is an email from Jana in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was in the audience last night at the National Academy. You asked the audience to think about what science concept we wished the public better understood. But we never heard what issue you think needs better public understanding.

  • 11:40:58

    ALDAI think what we were talking about a minute ago is a long range, deep problem. Deep question, which is I would love to see the public think like scientists more. To be more tuned in to the importance of evidence, to question where they get their information. To question their own biases. Do I believe that because there's evidence for it or would I like it to be true? And I think we'd all benefit from thinking more like scientists. The more we hear from scientists about how they do their work and the more caught up we are in that, in the adventure of it, the more accustomed we'll be to it.

  • 11:41:43

    ALDAThat's been my own history. The more I read about science as a young man, the more critical I became of my own thinking and what people would tell me. They'd say, oh, you'd better watch out for that. And I'd say, well now I say, oh really? Tell me more about that. Where did you hear that?

  • 11:42:03

    REHMAnd what about the question of women in science?

  • 11:42:07

    ALDAYeah, a very serious question.

  • 11:42:08

    REHMAnd the issue of whether women are turned away by, turned off by science.

  • 11:42:15

    ALDAI don't think women are turned off by it so much as turned away by it. Joe Handelsman, who is one of the people now who advises the President, did a study where she sent around resumes to science departments around the country. The resumes were identical, except some had the name of a woman at the top and some had the name of a man. Of easily identifiable as a man or a woman. The ones that were apparently coming from women were not regarded as serious scientists as the ones from men.

  • 11:43:02

    ALDAIf they were thought to be hirable, they were offered less money. It was a total reduction in interest in them if it was -- and it was the same resume. But when they were women, that counted against them.

  • 11:43:18

    REHMSo, so how do you account for that? Is it that more men have been in science longer, and therefore, they're the ones who are looking at the resumes?

  • 11:43:30

    ALDAYeah, and also, they haven't gotten the message yet. I mean, they haven't internalized it. Probably, there isn't anybody alive in our country that doesn't know that you're not supposed to call a woman a girl, but there are still people...

  • 11:43:43

    REHMWho do.

  • 11:43:44

    ALDANot only that, who I know of somebody, this is astonishing to me, when she started to work in his lab, he said, I'll give you -- I'll make the same deal with you I make with all my women assistants. If you can stay here two years without getting pregnant, I'll give you a case of beer. And he gave her a case of beer in front of a crowd of people and said why. It's humiliating. And this was, this was a scientist, a person presumably unbiased in his thinking. But we all have some biases and we need to catch up. That's all. It's a question of education.

  • 11:44:25

    REHMHere is just a great question from Dan in Sacramento, California.

  • 11:44:32

    ALDAOkay.

  • 11:44:33

    REHMHe says, considering your dedication to science, if the opportunity presented itself to you, would you volunteer for the Mars 1 mission, even though it means a one way trip?

  • 11:44:55

    ALDAIn a heartbeat, I would turn that down. You can't say no faster than I can. Are you kidding? Look...

  • 11:45:07

    REHMBut somebody is gonna do it.

  • 11:45:09

    ALDA...yeah. I wouldn't be Robinson Crusoe either. I wouldn't be the, you know, the two guys that went across the country with the canoe.

  • 11:45:18

    REHMLivingston and…

  • 11:45:20

    ALDANo, Clark. Clark and what's his name?

  • 11:45:23

    REHMYeah. Livingston and...

  • 11:45:26

    ALDAI don't know. We're lost in our memories.

  • 11:45:26

    REHMAll right, we're pretty bad here. All right, let's go to Lisa in Asheville, North Carolina. You're on the air.

  • 11:45:37

    LISAMr. Alda, I'm so excited to talk to you, and I've studied your work. And one of my favorite articles was "Give It to Me Straight" and I loved this quote. You said, if scientists can't communicate clearly, the rest of us lose out on the beauty of science, the intrigue, the great detective story it is, and the poetry of it.

  • 11:45:57

    ALDAYeah. That, thank you.

  • 11:45:58

    LISAI love that quote.

  • 11:45:59

    ALDAI'm glad you like that, because, you know, when people say to me, why should we communicate science? There are so many clear, obvious reasons why, because it helps the economy, because it makes us stronger and more secure. But the thing that I think is the most important is that science is so amazingly beautiful. It's like saying, why do we need poetry or why do we need music? That question is never raised, why do we need music? It's obvious. It enriches us. You know...

  • 11:46:34

    LISABut...

  • 11:46:35

    ALDA...go ahead. I'm sorry.

  • 11:46:35

    LISANo, I'm sorry. Please go.

  • 11:46:37

    ALDANo, no. You're -- I've been talking all -- for the hour. Go ahead.

  • 11:46:41

    LISAFor those of us can't attend Stony Brook University, or the organizations that sponsor your talks, do you have programs to develop more trainers for your programs so we can reach more people?

  • 11:46:53

    ALDAWell, The Kavli Foundation has funded all the Kavli Learning Center online. And that -- we're going to be going online in a few months. It's still being built, and that should have a lot of information where people can train other people. But we have nine affiliated universities and medical schools around the country. And my dream is to have hundreds of them so that there will be some place near you where you can go and get this training, because it's so important. Thank you.

  • 11:47:27

    REHMAnd by the way, it was Lewis and Clark.

  • 11:47:32

    ALDALewis and Clark. That's it.

  • 11:47:33

    REHMLewis and Clark.

  • 11:47:34

    ALDAYes.

  • 11:47:35

    REHMLet's see. And to Lisa here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:47:43

    LISAGood morning, Diane. I love your show. I'm a regular listener.

  • 11:47:46

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:47:47

    LISAAnd good morning, Mr. Alda.

  • 11:47:49

    ALDAGood morning.

  • 11:47:49

    LISAThis is such music to my ears. I applaud you and what you're doing in this area. I am a registered dietician and a lifelong science communicator. And I'm calling representing a foundation called the International Food Information Council Foundation. And our sole purpose is to communicate science on health, nutrition and food safety for the public good. And having said all that, I know this Center is just brilliant. I agree with you. I wish you had hundreds more around the country.

  • 11:48:17

    LISAWe need more of it. But have you thought about, or are you actively working in the space of nutrition science?

  • 11:48:25

    ALDAYou know, we train people in every conceivable field of science. And it's not to regulate their content or tell them how to present their content. Or write up their content, but to improve their ability to take their content into their own hands and make it communicable to the public. So, I would, you know, we do, in addition to doing workshops in universities around the country, we also do a summer institute where people come from all over the country for training.

  • 11:49:04

    ALDAAnd sometimes they go back to their institutions and start centers there. We also do a boot camp in the summer where people come for their own improvement in communication. So, your people might be interested in one of those programs.

  • 11:49:20

    REHMAll right. Good luck to you, Lisa. And to Joe in St. Louis, Missouri. You're on the air. Let's see if we've got that whole...

  • 11:49:33

    JOEThank you.

  • 11:49:33

    REHM...one second.

  • 11:49:34

    ALDAI can hear somebody. Hello.

  • 11:49:37

    REHMHello, Joe.

  • 11:49:37

    JOEHello. Thank you, Diane, for taking my call.

  • 11:49:38

    REHMSure.

  • 11:49:38

    JOEI love the show.

  • 11:49:40

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:49:40

    JOEAnd Mr. Alda, for everything you're doing in this area, I'm looking for some advice. I'm kind of an amateur scientist. I'm a geriatric physician. And I go to China every year for about a month with (unintelligible) University in Chen Du. And so I have to give lectures on dementia, delirium, end of life, things that are coming up there in China. So, my question is, they always give me a translator, because my Chinese isn't very good. And so, how do I reach out to the audience? How do you know your audience if you're working through a translator?

  • 11:50:14

    ALDAThat's so good.

  • 11:50:14

    REHMWhat a great question.

  • 11:50:15

    ALDAYou know, you remind me, on my first trip to China, I met with some actors. And I wanted to improvise with them, but I couldn't speak Chinese very well, either. And they couldn't speak English. So we improvised entirely in gibberish. So, I don't recommend that for your lecture. But it was -- gibberish was a common language that we had, and that's one of the improvising games. But I think, you know, I have talked with Chinese audiences too.

  • 11:50:43

    ALDAAnd they're just like us, regardless of what language you're speaking in. Before they pay attention to the actual words you're saying, they're getting cues from your face and your tone of voice. And are you really connecting with them? It's not enough, and I can't tell from what you said if this is what happens, but it wouldn't be enough to say the words to the translator so that the words are then coming from the translator. Your persona, the extent to which you can convey your own enthusiasm for what you're saying, is going to mean a lot to their understanding.

  • 11:51:19

    ALDAThe words that they finally hear from the translator, I think.

  • 11:51:21

    REHMI think that's a great point. You know, the other thing I had found in speaking to large audiences is never to use a podium.

  • 11:51:36

    ALDAMe too. I'm so glad to hear that.

  • 11:51:38

    REHMReally?

  • 11:51:39

    ALDAI think people bury themselves behind the fortress of a podium.

  • 11:51:42

    REHMExactly. I never use notes.

  • 11:51:45

    ALDAYep.

  • 11:51:45

    REHMSo I'm walking around the stage.

  • 11:51:48

    ALDAPerfect. Yeah.

  • 11:51:49

    REHMAnd I'm talking, trying to communicate what I know.

  • 11:51:55

    ALDAAnd you're not talking, it sounds like you're not speaking totally from memory. You haven't memorized something.

  • 11:52:00

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:52:00

    ALDAWhich is sometimes the same as reading to them.

  • 11:52:03

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:52:03

    ALDAAnd you know, the reading voice is so different from the spontaneous voice.

  • 11:52:07

    REHMFrom spoken.

  • 11:52:08

    ALDAIt's, there's a rhythm that almost everybody gets into and is almost a melody that they get into when they're reading. And I sometimes, when people read, sometimes on the radio or on television, when they get to the part where they start reading, I can't understand them. Because they're not doing it in the same natural bursts that spontaneous speech comes out in.

  • 11:52:29

    REHMAnd, you know, the first time it happened to me, I was visiting a station in Arizona and there were hundreds of people there in this big hotel. And I'm waiting on the sidelines, next to the manager of the station and all of a sudden, I looked up at the platform. And I said, where's the podium? And he said, you don't need one. Just go up there and talk.

  • 11:53:06

    ALDAThat's great. So that was your first experience.

  • 11:53:08

    REHMYeah. Absolutely.

  • 11:53:08

    ALDAAnd then you realized how great it was.

  • 11:53:10

    REHMTrial by fire and it was just so comfortable for me and for the audience.

  • 11:53:17

    ALDAOne of the things it does is really puts you in the lap of the audience. You have a much more intimate connection than you do if you have this armor in front of you of the podium.

  • 11:53:26

    REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Here's an email from Michael Halpern with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says we work with thousands of scientists to improve their ability to share their expertise. It's the young scientists who are most enthusiastic about stepping out from academia to engage. But how can we make this kind of public service something that scientists are rewarded for in their careers, rather than just scientific publication?

  • 11:54:12

    ALDAYeah, that's a really good question, because not only are scientists sometimes not rewarded for being very good communicators with the public, sometimes, when they get to be star communicators with the public, they're considered to be less good as scientists. Sort of ipso facto. That's sometimes called the Carl Sagan effect. Because he got turned down by inclusion in important scientific societies, sometimes, because they felt he wasn't that serious.

  • 11:54:40

    REHMIsn't that just...

  • 11:54:41

    ALDANow, but time has gone by now.

  • 11:54:42

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:54:43

    ALDAIt's not as bad now.

  • 11:54:44

    REHMRight.

  • 11:54:44

    ALDAI mean, I don't think anybody talks about, although I must say, I heard Stephen Hawking referred to as -- by somebody as, you know, he's not that good a scientist. And he's made real contributions to science.

  • 11:54:58

    REHMOh my gosh.

  • 11:54:59

    ALDABut there, and this was years ago, anyway, but there is sometimes this seesaw where if you're too heavy on public acceptance, you go up and you're not so heavy on professional acceptance. But I think, as it begins to be understood, that it actually is a public service, and it's not only a public service benefiting the public. It benefits science.

  • 11:55:25

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:55:26

    ALDAWhen you go to Washington and you talk to the policy makers and you want to -- a grant. You're talking to fellow citizens who are tuned in to not your education, which you've spent 30 years accumulating, acquiring, you're talking to people who have gotten their knowledge of science from the culture by and large. And if you don't infuse that culture with a deeper understanding and love and respect for science, you're not going to get the funding.

  • 11:55:56

    REHMAre you giving up acting?

  • 11:55:59

    ALDANo. No. A movie I was in just came out called "The Longest Ride." And I have a small part in a really interesting movie that Steven Spielberg directed that's coming out in October. It's about the U2 incident.

  • 11:56:14

    REHMCalled.

  • 11:56:14

    ALDACalled "Bridge of Spies." It's a very, very interesting movie. And I got the chance to work with Spielberg, which I always wanted to do.

  • 11:56:23

    REHMHow marvelous.

  • 11:56:24

    ALDAHe's a lovely guy.

  • 11:56:24

    REHMSo, you're balancing your life.

  • 11:56:28

    ALDAI am. I mean, last year, I did two movies, several television episodes, and a play on Broadway. And still spent 90 percent of my time trying to help scientists communicate better.

  • 11:56:40

    REHMI love it.

  • 11:56:41

    ALDAOne time, one weekend, I had to go, before I got on the plane to go to Chicago, to make a speech to 3,000 hospital directors, I had to go to Brooklyn to have my head blown off on a television show. Then I got on the plane, Gave the speech to the thousands of people, came back and the next day, opened on Broadway at a play. I mean, I don't know how I did that.

  • 11:57:06

    REHMAnd there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Alan Alda, who is truly a man for all seasons. Thank you so much.

  • 11:57:18

    ALDAThank you so much, Diane.

  • 11:57:18

    REHMLoved having you here.

  • 11:57:20

    ALDAI always love it.

  • 11:57:21

    REHMCome back and see us again.

  • 11:57:22

    ALDAThank you.

  • 11:57:23

    REHMThank you all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Comments

comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows