Alan Alda and His Scientific Universe
Alan Alda loves to dig to the root of things. He has no patience for jargon, for flimsy logic, for impenetrable lectures. He wants to know: What is time? How do clocks work? What are the processes that govern the universe?
Alda, now 81, is best known for playing Captain Hawkeye Pierce, the quick-witted and kind-hearted surgeon, on M*A*S*H. These days, in addition to acting, he teaches scientists how to make their work accessible, so anyone can understand—really understand—the universe, what makes it work, how the pieces fit together. He asks a lot of questions, and he keeps asking until he grasps the answers. What’s inside a flame? It’s oxidation. What’s oxidation?
He is a champion of scrutiny, an evangelist of uncertainty. He says he’s not a believer—he doesn’t like the word “agnostic”—but he is insatiably curious about religion. He grew up Catholic, raised by an Irish-English mother and an Italian father, and he has a theory that he’s descended from exiled Spanish Jews. His wife, Arlene, is Jewish, and he’s learned a lot over 60 years of marriage. (Once, curious about Passover’s history, he wrote his own Haggadah.)
Alda’s new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, comes out this summer. He speaks with Moment about his work, his relationship with religion and his devotion to scientific understanding.
When did you first become interested in science? How did it become such a big part of your life?
When I was six years old, I’d make experiments around the house, mixing my mother’s face powder with toothpaste to see if I could get it to blow up. Fortunately, I couldn’t reach the ingredients found around the house that might actually blow up. In my early 20s, I started reading science avidly. It was like learning a new language. I loved learning how scientists were able to discover so many things about the universe—things that we see in everyday life, but they could see inside them. It’s a fascinating detective story.
When I was finished with M*A*S*H, I was asked if I wanted to host Scientific American Frontiers. I realized that they probably wanted me just to introduce the show on camera and then disappear and read a narration. I said I’d be interested in doing it if I could interview the scientists, because I wanted to spend the day with them and learn about their work. That was the beginning of a revelatory experience: I didn’t come in with a list of questions. I just came in with curiosity—and a whole lot of natural ignorance. I knew that I didn’t know things. I tried to understand what they were telling me and I wouldn’t let them go until I understood it. That put their focus on me, rather than on giving a lecture to the camera, and things happened between us that were human and natural and lifelike.
As a result, their science became more accessible—not only for people like me, but for the people in the audience. And I thought: Wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them how to achieve that without somebody like me standing next to them? And so I started experimenting with a group of engineering students, taught them a little improv. The way they talked about their work before the improv was so different from the way they talked about it after three hours of work. Then we started teaching classes, and you could see a real transformation take place. So we started the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Since we began in 2009, we’ve taught 8,000 scientists and doctors.
Why is it important for everyone to understand science?
If scientists can’t communicate with us, we’re going to miss the most beautiful, most entertaining thing that the human mind can come up with—which is an understanding of the universe. Not just what we see of it, but what’s underneath it, what makes it work. What’s a clock like when you open up the back? It’s fascinating. To really understand the way it all fits together, and what the processes are that govern it—that’s beautiful. I don’t want to miss that, and I don’t want other people to miss it.
Basic knowledge is beautiful. There’s a wonderful quote by a great physicist named Robert Wilson. A couple of decades ago, Congress was trying to decide if it wanted to spend a few more million dollars on a collider in Texas. And the chairman of the committee said to Robert Wilson (and I’m paraphrasing), “Will this collider help us defend our country?” And Wilson said, “Well, it will give us a picture of the universe that will be so extraordinary, it’s equivalent to the art and music and literature that make up our culture. And it won’t help us defend our country—but it will make our country worth defending.” That’s so true—and to me, so beautiful. Didn’t convince the senator. They killed the bill. The collider was half finished. There were tunnels underground. Now, instead of sending particles through the tunnel, it’s being used to store computer records. It became a storage facility instead of a way to understand nature, which is a shame.
Your new book is all about the importance of explaining science clearly. Can you give us a few tips?
You have to know your audience. If you’re talking to them, you’re looking at them, you’re able to read on their faces if they’re getting it. Even if you’re writing for them, you’re imagining the way they’re processing what you’re telling them. In a way, you’re reading their minds in the moment. The person trying to communicate has to listen even better than the person who’s listening. They’re listening to find out what they need to say, and how they need to say it.
Carl Sagan is arguably one of the most famous science communicators. Didn’t he face prejudice because of his popularity? Are scientists who try to make their work more accessible stigmatized?
A lot of people refer to it as the Sagan effect. The more popular a scientist was, the more successful he was at communicating with the public, the more some other scientists felt he wasn’t a true scientist. But I think that’s changing. When we started the Center for Communicating Science, it wasn’t always easy to convince department heads that they should let their graduate students spend time learning communication. Now we’re overbooked. Some departments mandate it. That was unheard of when we started. So I think we’ve helped change the view of the importance of communication.
In a climate where science—and facts themselves—can be met with skepticism and hostility, why is communication important today?
With better science communication, I hope people will begin to think more like scientists. We all have to operate to a certain extent on trust, but if we don’t determine whether a source is trustworthy, we could make poor decisions that affect our lives. The debate about vaccines is an example of that. If not enough people get vaccinated, people could die from the disease. People need to examine the evidence. Our lives depend on that more and more.
Do you think today’s climate welcomes facts and evidence? On a scale of welcoming to hostile, where do you think we are right now?
I’m not a social scientist. I don’t know how to measure it. All my life, I’ve observed people who didn’t think rationally—and at times in my life, I haven’t thought rationally. I know how easy it is not to. Some people feel they can talk to the dead. People have their palms read, they’ll read the astrology column. They’re not accustomed to challenging that thinking with what’s known through observation, experimentation, studies and peer review.
I don’t know if it’s worse than it ever was. But it’s always been a good idea to get better at relying on evidence. And it’s not just evidence: Studies say that just showing people the facts isn’t enough. They have to trust you. It has to be related to their experience. You tell them what the speed of light is, but what difference does it make unless they can relate it to their experience? You tell them that vaccines don’t cause autism, but telling them that fact—or even showing them the evidence—doesn’t always do a good job. There has to be person-to-person trust.
What do you think of the Trump administration’s approach to subjects like climate change?
Climate change needs to be understood for what it is. We can’t keep poisoning the air and the people who breathe it. We can’t keep giving them skin cancers. Rejecting real science is not a good idea. We stand the chance of hurting ourselves seriously—and hurting everything else that’s alive. There’s nothing lost by listening to real, good, solid science. The chances of losing something valuable by ignoring it or denigrating it are much greater.
Are you worried about the upsurge in religious fundamentalism?
I long for the good old days of cognitive dissonance, where you could believe whatever you believed and you respected scientific inquiry. You realized that facts are facts and faith is faith, and what’s the difference if they seem to contradict each other? I say that in a lighthearted way—cognitive dissonance has a bad reputation. But if it allows you to believe one thing on the one hand and believe another thing on the other hand, and you don’t kill anybody in the process, maybe it’s not so bad.
Do science and religion conflict? How do you—and how should we—resolve this tension?
I don’t think they necessarily conflict. It depends on how much you feel you have to give up one for the other. I don’t personally happen to be a believer, but I don’t resent anybody’s believing what they believe, as long as they don’t feel it’s necessary to deny the validity of reason and experimentation and evidence. It’s not necessary to make yourself ignorant in order to believe. Too many smart people were believers.
You explored Albert Einstein’s life in your play, “Dear Albert,” which is based on Einstein’s letters. What drew you to Einstein?
I wanted to do a dramatic evening at the World Science Festival, and I knew that Einstein’s letters had some wonderful dramatic moments in them. You had one of the smartest people in the world, and here were his letters to his two wives and friends. He revealed himself to be a very human person, at times all too human—with flaws, the kinds of flaws most of us have, thinking more about himself than the other person. And at the same time, he arrived at a view of the universe that was groundbreaking, just cracked open what we thought about the way things worked. It’s an exciting story, to see these amazing ideas and revelations occur to him at the same time that he’s being mean-spirited to one wife so he can move on to the next.
I didn’t want to put down Einstein. I wanted to share his humanity, to show that he was a person like us. I wrote a play about Marie Curie, too, called “Radiance.” The same thing was at work there. I want to see the messy, three-dimensional humans, so that we recognize that they’re flesh and blood like us—they’re just very smart. But they’re not a different species. There are a lot of reasons to recognize that. People can be drawn to science who wouldn’t otherwise think they were suited to it. They can become more interested in these stories because they’re human stories, and in the process become interested in the science.
If scientists can’t communicate with us, we’re going to miss the most beautiful, most entertaining thing that the human mind can come up with—which is an understanding of the universe.
We once published a story about the public figures most often misidentified as Jews—and you made the list. Why do you think you’re mistaken for being Jewish?
What might surprise you is I think I am Jewish. The reason I think so is I had an Irish-English mother and an Italian father. My grandfather told me that the Italian family left Spain 450 years ago, which would have put it around 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. My guess is that the family left Spain and went to Naples, where many Jews went. Some went to Sicily, some went to other places, but a lot of them went to Naples because Naples was controlled by Spain at that time, but they didn’t have the edict to get out yet. About two years later, they had to get out. Then my guess is they moved north to the Abruzzo region. And then when things calmed down, they came back down to near Naples, where the family is now 30 kilometers outside of Naples in a town called Sant’Agata de’ Goti. And their name is D’Abruzzo, which means they had come from Abruzzo, but here they were in Naples. So that’s, in my imagination, the trajectory that they were on. But I’m not sure. I’ve taken some DNA tests, and I seem to be 4 percent Jewish. But I’m also 2 percent Neanderthal—so maybe that was just the Jewish Neanderthals.
Your wife, Arlene, is Jewish. Describe your relationship to Judaism.
We’re both very much interested in Jewishness. But I’m not a believer, so even if I find out that I’m genetically Jewish—it’s possible, but probably unlikely—I think it’s easier to be Jewish and not be a believer than it is to become Jewish and not be a believer.
When Arlene studied Yiddish, I tried to take lessons from her. Sometimes we’d sit at a concert hall waiting for the concert to begin, and we’d write notes to each other in transliterated Yiddish. At her 60th birthday, I sang to her in Yiddish. We’re both obsessed with watching movies about World War II. We could stay up all night watching black-and-white Nazis, because we want to see them lose over and over again.
Have you raised your children Jewish?
No. I wanted to make sure they knew they were Jewish, but nobody in our family is religious. Although one of our daughters got bat mitzvahed at the age of 40, and her daughter was there, singing along. But there’s more of a sense of solidarity and cultural connection than belief.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
Passover. Passover’s like Thanksgiving. People sit around and eat and drink and tell stories, are glad to be alive. I like that.
Do you celebrate Passover?
We often do, though not every single year. A few years ago, I was at a seder, and I said to the host, “How do you think the seder has evolved over the years?” And he said, “What do you mean, ‘evolved?’” I said, “Well, it must have started out one way and grown over the years. Don’t you think?” He said, “The seder is the seder. It didn’t evolve.” We were reading from the Manischewitz Haggadah, and I thought: Before it got to Manischewitz, I think it must have been something else over the years.
I did research, and at the next seder, I had written a Haggadah that we all worked from. It didn’t necessarily go through the order of the seder, but it talked about the origin of each of those events, and how much of it goes back to the Greek occupation of what’s now Israel, and why there’s a pillow, and why they recline, and what the Afikoman once was and what it became. It’s very interesting. The Jews who were often at our seders who hadn’t been to seders in a long time were really interested in this, because it connected them to the evolution of the holiday.
Do you still use that Haggadah?
No, we haven’t used it in a few years. Lately, our daughters have their own Passover dinners, so we let them run it.
Do you have a favorite Passover food?
The thing is, there’s hardly any dish in the Jewish recipe book that I don’t love. So it’s hard to pick a favorite. Sometimes, to pass the time on M*A*S*H, we’d say: “Okay, what’s your favorite ethnic food? Italian? Irish? Jewish? How many dishes can you identify that you love the most?” And the Jewish foods always came out ahead. There were more things that you could love. Kasha varnishkes, I’m crazy about. I don’t like chopped liver, I’m sorry to say—I hope that doesn’t get me off the list of supposed Jews.