The Art of Science Communication
Alan Alda, Actor and Writer
Description: You wouldn't know that Alan Alda felt nervous in advance of addressing this audience of neuroscientists. In his trademark style, Alda chats up the crowd like an old friend, sharing anecdotes involving one of his great pursuits: "I love to talk to scientists," he says.
When he is not on stage or in a film, Alda works to advance the public understanding of science. For more than a decade, he has served as a kind of super talent for Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, helping develop a unique kind of program. Meeting scientists around the world, Alda would pose a series of unscripted questions, the more na've the better. "An amazing thing happened on their end: the real 'them' came out. They weren't lecturing me, but connecting with me and trying to get me to understand. These conversation modes brought out not only their own personalities, but the science through their personalities."
Whether climbing a forbidden stairway in the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or squatting at the rim of a crater on the suspiciously steaming Vesuvius volcano, Alda always managed to engage his scientist confederate in lively and instructive interactions. In this "wonderful system," says Alda, the "scientist would warm up to me and the science would come out in a way that was understandable." He relates a revelatory incident, where a scientist inadvertently turned away from him during taping and addressed the camera instead. Her tone became instantly dry and the information "unintelligible." This episode "changed the course of my life," says Alda, leading him to pursue his own research on how spontaneous social communication can simply vanish in certain circumstances. If scientists could readily summon the capacity for everyday, natural communication, Alda suggests, imagine how much more effective they might be.
He shows "before and after" videos of young engineers with whom he has worked on improvisation exercises. Post"Alda, they appear to express themselves with greater warmth. "Understanding and reading faces and speaking in a tone of voice that carries emotion and meaning above and beyond words" is critical, says Alda. He hopes that researchers at places like the McGovern Institute can help unravel the neurological basis for the kind of communication "that makes us human," work that someday may help "scientists all overto speak in their own voices."
About the Speaker(s): Alan Alda is an actor, director and writer. He has won numerous EMMY and Golden Globe Awards, and has also been nominated for the Tony and Academy Awards. Alda is probably best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H. He served for nine years as host of the PBS series, Scientific American Frontiers,, and of the 2009 series, The Human Spark. In 2007, Alda's second book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, became an instant bestseller. His first book, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, and Other Things I've Learned was published in 2005.
Alda received his B.S. degree in English from Fordham College of Fordham University.
Host(s): School of Science, McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
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