by Suzanne Braun Levine
Everyone knows Alan Alda – writer, director, actor. And it’s no surprise that he won Emmys in all three categories for his work on M*A*S*H, one of the most popular TV shows of all time, in which he played the beloved dyspeptic character Hawkeye Pierce. But it might surprise some to hear that he has played another role all along – Science Guy.
His first “scientific” paper was published in 1975. It was on what he satirically identified as the “testosterone poisoning” crisis. This is a plague strikes men exclusively. The symptoms are easy to spot: “Sufferers are reported to show an early preference (while still in the crib) for geometric shapes. Later they become obsessed with machinery and objects to the exclusion human values. They have an intense need to rank everything and are obsessed with size. (At some point in his life, nearly every male measures his penis).” Needless to say, his research was shunned by most (male-run) journals and only saw the light of day in a woman-run journal – Ms. magazine.
His accomplishments went unrecognized for decades, until he became the host of the long-running series “Scientific American Frontiers.” For eleven years and 81 episodes, he traveled the globe from high tech science labs to mountain-top observatories interviewing the great scientific minds – and sometimes even becoming a guinea pig in their experiments. In one, after submitting to a brain scan of his hippocampus as he is trying to match faces to names, he is relieved to hear that it is good shape. “It’s nice and plump,” the scientist reports.
He found that there was so much cutting-edge work in science and technology that was shrouded in obscurity from the public. He cast himself as the Everyman in the labs he viisited, asking question after question, demanding clarification after clarification and definition after definition until he and the viewers finally “got it.” To make sure he was a good stand-in for the viewer, he eventually stopped preparing for the interview. Instead, “I would come in armed only with curiosity and my own natural ignorance.”
It was an arduous task; no matter how passionate about their work they were, the scientists weren’t getting through to the rest of us. As he probed the cloud of jargon, he became a skilled interpreter and guide across the communications gap. But to reach the public, he realized, the experts needed to learn to explain themselves without a go-between.
As an actor, Alda is trained in the art of communicating; maybe, he thought, the same techniques would help here. In 2009 he founded The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He developed training session around what actors call “Improv” – getting up in front of an audience and reacting on the spot to an imaginary script. Alda describes the method as “games and exercises that enable you to open up to another person, tune in to them, engage with them in a dance of ideas and feelings, and to go anywhere it takes you, together.”
It’s hard to imagine uptight science nerds – let alone most of us – letting go, making fools of themselves, and being exhilarated by the experience. But Alda assures them, it works. “Real conversation,” he writes, “can’t take place if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.”
The more he worked with grateful scientists, the more he realized that communication wasn’t just their problem. We all experience the frustration of not being understood, and we all fall short of understanding what others are trying to tell us, whether we are aware of it or not. The formula that works in Improv – as well as every human exchange – is listening, empathy, responding to what is said to you. It takes practice.
He goes into much greater and very funny detail in his recent book “If I Understood You Would I Have This Look On my face? My adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.” The Science Guy will be talking about his book on the Main Stage of the Milford Theater on Saturday, September 29 and about “the single biggest problem in communication,” which George Bernard Shaw is said to have said, “is the illusion that it has taken place.”