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 general relativity make GPS possible,” Alda said. “It’s 100 years after he came up with that basic study, and now everybody’s carrying one around in their pocket. Sometimes it takes a couple of years, sometimes it takes a couple of centuries, but knowing something is always better than not knowing it,” he said.
On The Shoulders Of Giants
By the time scientists identified the polio virus in 1908, it had been paralyzing and killing children for nearly a century. An epidemic struck the U.S. a few years later, in 1916. Medical researchers didn’t figure out how to grow the virus in a lab culture, where they could easily test drugs and vaccines against it, until 1948. Children started receiving Jonas Salk’s injected polio vaccine in 1955, and new cases of the devastating diseases plummeted. Science had, after decades of research, broken the epidemic.
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” wrote Isaac Newton in 1675. And the researchers now working to understand and combat Covid-19 are standing on a foundation of basic knowledge built by decades of research: how viruses work, how to grow them in the lab, how to study their genomes, how the human immune system works, and how different types of disease move through a population. That’s why the fight is going so much faster than it did when we faced polio.
Alda discuss that story in detail with Moore Foundation president Harvey Fineberg in the podcast’s second episode. According to Fineberg, “Our ability to live healthy, prosperous, and satisfying lives has been served and advanced by basic science.”
The Endless Frontier
That’s exactly the point engineer Vannevar Bush, who ran the wartime U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, made in his July 1945 report to President Franklin Roosevelt. At the height of the polio epidemic and in the final days of World War II, Science: The Endless Frontier laid the groundwork for government investment in science research, and it’s the reason the National Science Foundation exists today. You can read it online for free, and Alda discusses it with former Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman in the podcast’s third episode, which airs on October 29.
But that investment in basic scientific research hasn’t been without its detractors. The kind of research that gives us fundamental knowledge about the universe doesn’t always look like it’s going to yield anything worthwhile.
“It seems like they’re funding scientists to go play in the sandbox, with no payoff at the end of it,” said Alda. “You can’t promise that it’s going to lead to a medicine that saves lives, for instance.”
Take fruit flies, for example. “It sounds ludicrous to study fruit flies; it’s not as if we need healthier fruit flies, but we need more knowledge about nature,” explained Alda. Because they multiply so quickly and have such quick lifespans, they’re a great model for studying genetics. Fruit fly studies have produced a wealth of basic knowledge about how genes work, how genetic disorders are inherited, and how certain genetic changes can impact health.
And back in the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave entomologists a grant to study the sex life of a cattle parasite called the screwworm fly. That sounded frivolous, but it eventually produced a sterile strain of screwworm flies, which entomologists released into the wild. By mating with wild flies, but not producing offspring, the sterile flies helped eliminate the parasite. The result? Healthier herds and less expensive beef and dairy products.
“I think that it’s just one instance after another of how basic research does lead to very practical, often life-saving discoveries,” Alda said. “You’ve got to have the basic knowledge first.”
But just as it took a century for general relativity to help us navigate our world, it may take a few years or a few decades for today’s basic science research to improve the lives of future generations.
“It would really be good for all of us to realize that long-range thinking is going to make life better for humans,” Alda said. “Those people who did the long-range thinking in prior generations have enabled us to use that understanding and knowledge to make our lives better, and some of the things we’re suffering from now will be dealt with in future generations because we thought deeply about the way nature works, so I think we have a responsibility to do that.”
The first episode of Science Clear + Vivid is live now, and a new episode will release every week for the next nine weeks. Science Clear + Vivid is a spinoff of Alda’s Clear + Vivid podcast, which also frequently covers science topics.