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The Givers: Alan Alda Plays With Fire! An Exclusive Interview

When most people think of Alan Alda, a smile of recognition comes to their faces because they recall the hundreds of memorable roles that he's played.
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When most people think of Alan Alda, a smile of recognition immediately comes to their faces. That's because they recall the hundreds of memorable roles -- good guys and bad guys -- that he's played in feature films, on Broadway and on television -- notably his 11-season run with his beloved portrayal of Army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce on the landmark series M*A*S*H, a character which Alda imbued with equal doses of comedy, wit and melancholy.

What people don't ordinarily associate Alan with, however, is science -- and yet, his interest in it has taken hold of his heart. From 1993 to 2005, Alan was the recurring and ever-curious host of public television's "Scientific American Frontiers," the perfect assignment for a man who'd been fascinated with science his entire life.AlanAldaBenAmes.jpg

But it wasn't until 2009 that Alan's passion for science would inspire a project that has begun to make a real difference: Stoney Brook University's Center for Communicating Science, a cross-disciplinary organization whose goal is to help scientists learn to communicate complex scientific topics to the general public -- more clearly and more effectively. In 2012, Alan issued his now famous "Flame Challenge," a contest to determine which scientist worldwide could explain the concept of fire best to a panel of eleven-year-old judges. The contest -- and the winner -- made headlines around the globe.

I have known Alan for more than 40 years -- we appeared together in the 1970 movie, "Jenny;" we collaborated on the record album and television special of "Free to Be...You and Me;" we co-hosted the first TV special for the Ms. Foundation; and I am proud to say that he is an ardent supporter of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

So I was more than a little eager -- and, yes, very curious -- to talk with Alan about something we'd never really discussed before: his love of science. -- M.T.

* * *

Marlo Thomas: I've really been looking forward to talking to you about this. Because as much as people think they know all about you, you're still a surprise. If someone says the name Alan Alda, science is not the first thing that comes to mind. You give so much of your time to it, I have to wonder: where did this passion come from?

Alan Alda: Probably from when I was a little boy. I was always interested in figuring things out. I'd do experiments, like combining things I found around the house to see what would happen if I put them together.

Marlo: Really? Like what?

Alan: My mother's makeup from her makeup table, toothpaste, things I found in the kitchen. Fortunately, the things in the kitchen that would blow up if you put them together were on shelves I couldn't reach.

Marlo: That's so funny.

Alan: But I was always curious, and when I was around ten I started inventing things, and then making models of them.

Marlo: Like airplanes and other little boy things?

Alan: More like malted milk machines or a five-way can opener. Then I invented a lazy Susan for the refrigerator. You know how things are always in the back and you can't get to them? Well, I figured that if they were on a lazy Susan, you could turn it around and get what you want.

Marlo: That's brilliant. I wish I had one of those today.

Alan: About two years later, some refrigerator company actually came out with one. But then they discontinued it. I think bottles of ketchup were flying around kitchens everywhere.

Marlo: Did you still invent things?

Alan: Once in a while. I was doing an episode of Scientific American Frontiers, and I was interviewing a guy who had a machine that you could email a blueprint to, and it would actually cut it out of plastic and make it for you. I even rode a bike that had been emailed to his machine.

Marlo: You mean you rode a bike virtually?

Alan: No, his invention made a real one from the blueprints that were fed into it. So after he showed me how it worked, he asked, "Do you have anything?" And I said, "Yeah, I've got this invention for a camera -- it's a flash attachment that's more like a periscope; the light travels up about six or eight inches and shoots out the top at an angle, so you don't get red-eye. I tried to make a model out of cardboard, but it didn't work." So we tried it on his machine, and it worked! It was a good invention.

Marlo: That's great. Are you working on anything now?

Alan: I always have ideas. But now I've learned to look them up on the internet first, and most of the time, somebody else has already done it.

Marlo: That's so sad.

Alan: No, no -- it's good, because it saves me a lot of time of thinking. And it made me realize that there were other people who thought like this all the time -- people like me who loved to learn about science. I started reading Scientific American in my 20's, and I think I've read every issue since then. That's 50 or 60 years.

Marlo: So when Scientific American Frontiers first contacted you in 1990 and asked you to host the show, you jumped at it, right?

Marlo: Yes -- but only after telling them that I actually wanted to interview the scientists; not just go on camera and say, "Here is our show!" and then read some narration. That didn't interest me. I wanted to spend the day talking to these people. I wanted to learn. And it was a thrilling experience.

Marlo: Oh God, yes, especially with what you care about.

Alan: Absolutely. There is nothing more enjoyable to me than to see a smart brain at work. That's what I learned the most doing the show. I don't have any scientific training and I didn't need it. All I needed was curiosity. I come armed with a really good ignorance. I don't strive toward ignorance. I come by it naturally.

Interview Continues Below

The Apple Tree

The Givers: Alan Alda

Marlo: You're so funny. Now tell me, why did the show pick you? Was it because you played a doctor on M*A*S*H, and they figured you must have some inclination toward science?

Alan: Maybe they thought there was some connection. But as we began doing the show, we realized that we had discovered an unusual way to do a science program, with freewheeling, improvised conversations. I never asked questions that I knew the answer to. I never led the scientists step-by-step through an explication of their work. I just was curious and I would ask them to explain it to me until they were blue in the face. Or until I got it. Eventually two things happened: the audience saw real conversations, which was more involving for them than the typical, cut-and-dried interviews; and the scientists became much more involved. We didn't allow them to go into lecture mode. They were human beings talking about what they loved. That was the big breakthrough for me. That's when I realized that the secret to understanding science is the way scientists communicate about it.

Marlo: Let's talk about that. In 2009, you helped inspire the creation of The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. What is the Center's mission?

Alan: What we work toward at the Center is understanding how science can be communicated with clarity and vividness -- simplicity, but not oversimplification. I mean, we caution all the time against using metaphors that are misleading and keep you from asking more questions. To me, there's nothing more interesting than trying to understand nature. It's a mystery to us -- a deep, rich mystery -- and it's a beautiful thing to explore.

Marlo: So you're saying that it all begins with the scientists themselves -- that if they can have real, improvised conversations with people, rather than lecturing to them, this will lead to greater curiosity?

Alan: Yes. And it will unleash the curiosity that's already there.

Marlo: And you've witnessed this personally, right?

Alan: Oh, absolutely. I once tried an experiment at USC where I had 20 engineering students come in and talk about their work for two minutes. Then we improvised for three hours and, afterward, they talked about their work again for two minutes. The difference was amazing. They were so much clearer the second time.

Marlo: Are the scientists eager participants in all this?

Alan: Yes! I'm seeing scientists who are so excited by the idea that they can connect better with people. And it's not only communicating with the public that these scientists are getting better at. They're communicating better with other scientists -- and that's very important, because if two scientists in different fields find out how their fields can come together, they can create something new, something you never had before.

Marlo: Exactly. We've seen this concept at work at St. Jude -- scientists from all over the world, connecting and building on each other's discoveries.

Alan: Right. And, of course, scientists also have to be able to talk to policymakers and funders so they can get to do their science in the first place. I've been told by several members of Congress that, in meeting after meeting with scientists, they haven't understood a word of what they were saying. So for science to get funded -- and for us to get to the next breakthrough -- we absolutely need to have better communication.

Marlo: Your work for the Center is also focusing on how to make science clearer and cooler and sexier to kids, right?

Alan: Yes. Kids are natural scientists. They really do want to see how things work -- but we've got to nurture that natural curiosity, not squelch it.

Marlo: Which brings us to your famous "Flame Challenge," which received a lot of glowing press. Diane Sawyer even named you "Person of the Week." Tell me about that.

Alan: Diane helped to make it go global. It was an effort to get scientists to see what it was like -- and how hard it is -- to communicate a complex idea so simply that a kid could get it.

Marlo: The idea for that came from your own childhood experience, didn't it?

Alan: Right. I was writing a guest editorial for the journal Science, and I remembered this moment from when I was 11. I was fascinated with the flame at the end of a candle and thought about it for days -- and I had so many questions. What is it? It's not like anything else I've ever seen. You can put your finger through it, it doesn't have any substance, but it's very hot. What's going on in a flame? So I asked my teacher and she said, "It's oxidation." And that's all she said. I didn't know what oxidation was, so how was that an answer? She was just giving "flame" another name.

Marlo: Right. "It's not just a flame. It's oxidation. Now go home."

Alan: Exactly. So I wrote this story in my editorial, and then I said, ""So let's have a little fun with this. Let's have a contest where scientists have to explain to an 11-year-old what a flame is. And we'll have real 11-year-olds judge the answers."

Marlo: That's genius. And what was the response?

Alan: About 800 scientists submitted entries, which were first reviewed by experts for accuracy. Then they were sent to schools, where teachers had signed up their classes to participate in the challenge. We had 6,000 kids from around the world -- Alaska, Belgium, an Aborigine class in Western Australia -- and they came up with the winner. We even did a live-stream, online conference with schools from all over the world -- we could all see each other -- and the kids told us what they liked and what they didn't like about the finalists. And they were tough judges -- they took points off if an entry didn't give them enough information. They didn't just want to be entertained. They wanted to understand it and learn from it -- and they loved it when they learned new vocabulary words.

Marlo: That's great. Who was the winner?

Alan: His name is Ben Ames. He's a brilliant guy and a real scientist -- a 31-year-old American working at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, exploring how atoms interact with light on the quantum level.

Marlo: Yes, we'll, aren't we all? What did the kids like most about Ben's entry?

Alan: That it was colorful and entertaining and that they learned from it. Ben had heard me interviewed on NPR just two weeks before the deadline, and he said, "I want to do this because I'm bored with the work I'm doing on this machine I'm trying to fix." So he told his boss that he wanted to take two weeks off. He told his wife and child, "I'm not going to be around for the next couple of weeks" and locked himself in the basement and made a video. It was so good that everybody voted it the best, by far. He scripted it. He acted it. He animated it. He even wrote and sang a song that the kids really liked. They said they couldn't get it out of their heads -- which meant that, whether they were thinking about it or not, all day long they were learning about the flame!

Marlo: That's incredible -- and it speaks directly to what you were trying to accomplish.

Alan: Yes, it does. Interestingly, a lot of people thought that, because we were asking scientists to explain a flame to 11-year-olds, that we were trying to teach the kids. But that wasn't the point of it. The point was: to engage scientists in rethinking communication. We're going to do this again next year, but this time the kids will come up with the question. When we started asking kids to submit their questions, the first one that came back to us was, "What is time?"

Marlo: Wow.

Alan: Isn't that amazing? What is time? Is it a particle or what?

Marlo: How fabulous.

Alan: Yeah, these kids are smart! I remember during one discussion, one of the kids commented, "It's good to try to connect with us, but don't be silly. We're 11. We're not seven." Isn't that great?

Marlo: It is. I always hated it when teachers talked down to us in school. But I loved it when they were funny. Do you put any of your great sense of humor into your science work?

Alan: Sure, I do. Whenever I get up to talk I make sure to get them laughing in the first minute. We also try to encourage scientists to be funny by improvising. And it works -- not because they're saying funny things, but because unexpected moments happen in a very human way, and you can't help but laugh at them. They love that, and it starts to open them up to being funny in front of an audience. Often the laughter comes in big waves! And these are not people trained as entertainers -- they're scientists!

Marlo: We always ask our Facebook followers if they have any questions for our guest, and when I let them know that I would be speaking with you, the responses almost crashed our server! Here's one: "If you could go back in history and witness firsthand one scientific discovery, what would it be?"

Alan: Well, my hero is Marie Curie -- I've been writing a play about her for five years -- so I would like to have known her when she was discovering radium. But I wouldn't have wanted to get too close.

Marlo: [laughs] I totally get that. Here's another question: "Did preparing for your role on M*A*S*H heighten your interest in science?"

Alan: It taught me a lot. In 2003, I almost died of an intestinal blockage when I was on a mountain in Chile, filming a segment for Scientific American Frontiers. After the diagnosis, the doctor explained, "I'm going to have to cut out the bad part of your intestine and sew the two good ends together." I said, "Oh, you're going to do an end-to-end anastomosis." He said, "Yes -- how did you know that?" I said, "I did many of them on M*A*S*H."

Marlo: Here's a question that's completely unscientific -- but more than one person wanted to know: "What makes you laugh?"

Alan: I laugh at what's underneath what people think they're really saying.

Marlo: That's fascinating. I thought you were going to say something like "falling down."

Alan: Oh, falling down makes me laugh, too -- especially if I'm the one doing it.

Marlo: Another Facebook follower commented that many of the causes you work for seem to gravitate to helping children. Is that because you're a dad?

Alan: No, because I was a child, and my mother was psychotic. She loved me, but I didn't really feel I had a mother. And when you live with somebody who is paranoid and thinks you're trying to kill them all the time, you tend to feel a little betrayed. So, yes, I have sympathy for children whose innocence is trampled on. Few things get me as upset as the exploitation of children -- of youth and innocence.

Marlo: And that empathy makes you want to help children -- which makes sense. What's so interesting to me is that, when I first contacted you about being a part of my "Givers" series, you insisted you weren't a giver. But the fact is, helping is giving.

Alan: I think it's because phrases like "doing good" or "giving back" don't really have that much meaning for me. I don't think, "I'm going to go out and do good." For me, it's about doing something that will be helpful, that's also enjoyable to me.

Marlo: You say you don't think about giving back, but you do think about being helpful. That's an interesting distinction. Where does that come from?

Alan: For me, it's because I want to be effective. I want to count. These are not necessarily generous impulses.

Marlo: They're very human impulses.

Alan: Right. I want to be helpful. I want to have a role that's meaningful. And I certainly don't want to waste my time -- or someone else's time -- by getting in the way. The way I see it, there are people out there who already know how to drive the train. I don't want to go up to the front of the train and say, "I'll take over for awhile," That's not helpful. It's like seeing a blind person waiting at a traffic light and saying, "Can you use any help getting across the street?" If they say yes you feel like a million bucks. It feels good to be of help. But you don't just go up and grab some guy's elbow and say, "Here, let me help." I ask them first, and if they say, "No, thanks, I'm fine," I'm just as happy.

Marlo: Final question from Facebook: "A lot of people no longer have faith that we can rely on government funding for things that matter to us. At the same time, people are concerned that that they can't make a difference, either. So, what would you say to those who think they can't make a difference?

Alan: People make a difference all the time. I don't want to tell other people what to think -- but I think getting in the way is worse than not helping. And my experience has been that, even though I have a well-known name and often have access to the media that most other people don't have, I have felt for a long time that I personally have no voice in what's going on. And yet when I follow my interests -- when I follow the fun and find a little niche where I can be helpful and maybe move things along -- all of a sudden I do have a voice. And I can make a difference. That's happening with the scientists I've been working with. They are now being trained in communication, which is something I didn't think would happen until well after I was dead. But it's happening now. It's a small step forward, but it happened only because I followed the fun and found out where I could be helpful. But, you know, Marlo, I'm not trying to move mountains. I'm just trying to help the guy cross the street.

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