Alan Alda may be best known for his role as Hawkeye Piece in the television show M.A.S.H., but the actor, writer and podcast host has become an enthusiastic, deeply thoughtful communicator of science.
“It may not seem it, but it was a natural path,” Alda said. When his career as an actor brought Alda into contact with working scientists, he realized his training could help them be better at telling the public about their work. But it started with a childhood fascination with messy, hands-on curiosity.
“I remember doing what I thought were experiments on a card table at our house when I was about 6. I was mixing my mother’s face powder with toothpaste to see if I could get it to blow up,” he recalled. “Fortunately, the things that would actually blow up, I couldn’t reach on the shelf where they were stored.”
Decades later, Alda hosted the TV show Scientific American Frontiers from 1993 to 2005. He had held on to his interest in science, and that interest combined with his training in improvisation helped him draw the scientists he interviewed into livelier, more relatable conversations than most of them came prepared for.
“When the show was over, I was thinking how important it was for the scientists to relate to the public and really get the public as invested in the joy and the pleasure of learning about nature the way that scientists experienced it,” he said. “The way to do it would be to get them to relate to their audience in the same way that they had related to me.”
In 2010, he founded the Alda Center for Communicating Science, to help teach scientists how to talk to the public about science — and part of the Center’s work includes putting scientists through a version of the “improv school” Alda took as an actor.
Alda’s newest project is a podcast, Science Clear + Vivid, which focuses on how basic questions about the world generate the ingredients of useful discoveries. Innovation starts, he says, with curiosity for its own sake.
“My favorite example is Einstein’s general relativity, without which, 100 years later, we wouldn’t have GPS,” said Alda.
General relativity predicts that because the clocks aboard orbiting GPS satellites are in motion relative to your smartphone on Earth, they’ll tick a few nanoseconds a day slower. GPS works by making very precise measurements of the time it takes a signal to travel to and from a receiver on Earth and satellites in orbit, so a few nanoseconds’ difference can leave you hopelessly lost. But by making corrections based on general relativity, the whole system stays on target.
“[Einstein] didn’t foresee GPS at all, but the principles of