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Alan Alda on communicating science. Yes, M*A*S*H's Hawkeye Pierce

Alan Alda, best known to television audiences for his iconic portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce, MD, on the television series M *A *S * H, has thought a lot about communicating science. You probably would know that if you were a fan of the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, which he hosted for 12 years and where he interviewed more than 700 scientists. In a recent conversation I had with him for a  1:2:1 podcast, Alda told me that he went into the majority of those interviews completely blank and would ask the most basic questions. Some scientists, he said, could give a good “elevator speech” and in 20 seconds distill the essence of their work. And for others, it was a struggle. But he learned early on how to draw information from even the most reluctant: “I learned my ignorance was an asset, as long as I had curiosity. I was so curious that I barraged them with questions, and if I didn’t get it, I said, ‘No, go back over that. I don’t get it.’ It was a very personal interaction.”

Alda has taken his passion for communicating science to the academy, where he co-founded the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University on New York’s Long Island. There, he teaches science students the art of improvisation.

We started our conversation with a basic question: Why is understanding science so important today? “The things that we do in our daily lives,” he told me, “and the decisions that are made that affect our economy and the way we live are all based in science. Yet, most of us are divorced from science, we don’t speak the language, we often don’t understand the concepts.”

If you’ve known (and loved) Alan Alda as an actor, there’s another piece of his life that is just as formidable: science communicator extraordinaire. With the Center at Stony Brook, he’s created The Flame Challenge, an international contest that asks scientists to communicate complex science in way that interest and inform an 11 year old. Last year’s challenge was answering: What is Flame? This year’s: What is Time?

Think about it. How would you distill a question that seems so simple into a concept that every 11-year-old could understand?

Previously: Challenging scientists to better communicate their ideas to the public, Want to become a better science communicator? Try explaining science to a child and A conversation about the importance of conveying complex scientific concepts to broad audiences
Photo credit: CBS Television

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