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Alan Alda on the importance of science communication

It’s not often you see a post-show Q&A where the actors are ignored and the play’s writer does all the talking. But this playwright is Alan Alda, best known for his work in television and movies such as M*A*S*H, 30 Rock and The Aviator. Alda was in Brisbane earlier this month in his capacity as a writer and science advocate for the World Science Festival, which included a performance of his work based on the correspondence of Albert Einstein, Dear Albert. The Tech Street Journal had a chance to speak to Alda after the Dear Albert Q&A about the festival, his lifelong passion for science, and the importance of science communication.

It is perhaps a mark of Alda’s gentle and winning personality that the crowds who flocked to him in the Queensland Performing Arts Centre were not asking about Hawkeye, his most famous character, or any other performances. Everyone was focused on his work as a science advocate (excepting one old mate who derailed the Q&A to lecture Alda on the States’ lack of gun control. Alda listened patiently until the man had finished and then replied with a twinkle, “Thank you, I’ll let President Trump know.”). All hands were raised with requests for his thoughts on Einstein, Marie Curie, and the current state of scientific discourse.

Alda has been helping scientists to better communicate their work for the past twenty years, including inspiring the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in New York and co-founding the World Science Festival. He spoke in Brisbane this month with easy eloquence and passion about science, delighting the packed theatre. I was surprised to even see rows of school children hanging on Alda’s every word, giggling at quips about Einstein. It felt like there was more than his considerable star power at work; like there is a hunger in Brisbane for more engrossing, exciting science communication. But of course, it took Alda to help me see it.

He is quick to point out that he is not a scientist, but rather a science lover, and has retained this quality since childhood. “I invented a five-way can opener when I was ten. I was always interested in inventing and science, although I didn’t know anything about it. And still didn’t know anything about it until I was out of college and married, and began reading science a lot. I read it because it’s thrilling, it’s really exciting to me. Most of what I read I don’t understand, but I keep reading and I keep reading different versions of it until I sort of triangulate on it, and I put together what I read over here with what I read over there.”

This personal, intimate method of finding your way into scientific theories, Alda says, is missing from the way we communicate science. He uses the example of school science classes, which give you the conclusion first but neglect the story leading up to the fact. You are meant to merely memorise and store information. Alda’s wish is to see scientists engage more often and more deeply with the public through events like the World Science Festival, which takes what he calls a more human approach by combining science with the arts.

Alan Alda discusses his love of science communication with journalists and the cast of Deat Albert. Photos: Peter Thoeny, Kaitlyn Plyley

Alan Alda discusses science communication with journalists and the cast of Dear Albert. Photos: Peter Thoeny, Kaitlyn Plyley.

For Alda, story is the doorway into science. When he began researching the lives of famous scientists, he was struck by their humanity; according to Alda, learning about a scientist’s life and personality holds a key to understanding and becoming excited by their work. Once you understand that a real person with flaws and desires discovered the theory of relativity, understanding that theory might not seem such a stretch.

Speaking in his clear, soft voice, Alda’s twinkle dims as he outlines his main concern about the state of scientific discourse among politicians, journalists and the public: a lack of plain speaking. He points out that most people, unless they have had technical training in that field, cannot comprehend a scientific study. “[If scientists] can’t communicate in a clear, vivid way with the public, then other people will.” Good science journalists can act as translators for the public, but unless scientists can communicate their own research and findings, the power over that information lies in the hands of other stakeholders. Including, Alda suggests, people who would distort the science for their own means.

With controversies like the anti-vaxxer movement or the government’s appointment of a wind farm commissioner being fought over scientific data, it is important to know that the public is being delivered the correct interpretations of data, or at least are aware of the context in which it is delivered. Perhaps the hunger I felt in the room at QPAC – a room full of all ages of science enthusiasts – was linked to a growing uncertainty about our world. More direct communication between scientists and the public would empower citizens to make better informed choices, from policy decisions right down to whether to get a flu shot this winter.

With the World Science Festival, and hopefully Alan Alda, set to return to Brisbane annually over the next few years, it is my hope that we will see a surge in local science communication. Perhaps a dramatic reading of Ian Frazer’s emails from his time developing the HPV vaccine at the University of Queensland? Or, more sensibly, maybe site-specific art inspired by the Raine Island Recovery Project? There is a lot happening in the local science community to inspire the public.

If science is a medium for interrogating the way we experience our lives, much as literature and art are, then we should all be excited about it. And as Alda says, in his inimitable way, “What are we alive for, but to be excited by being alive? I can’t think of much else.”

About Kaitlyn Plyley