Mention the name Alan Alda and the first words that pop into most people’s heads are “Hawkeye Pierce,” the renegade unit surgeon on the popular tv series “M*A*S*H.” But the well-known actor is so much more that. The Emmy, Golden Globe and HGA award winner and author is a scientist, too, as the host of PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers” and now a college professor. Alda, who will be the guest speaker at the sold-out Mary and Louis Fusco Lecture at Southern CT. State University on May 3, teaches at the State University of New York. There, at the Stony Brooks Center for Communicating Science that he founded, he teaches medical school and science students how to more clearly communicate with others. Funny, warm and comfortable with where his 40 years of acting and his fascination with science have taken him in life, Alda answered clearly and concisely as he Spilled the Beans with Java.
Q: Somehow you are becoming as well known as a science-related expert as an actor. What excites you about science?
A: I was interested in science from when I was a boy and was an amateur inventor. I would invent magic tricks like cutting my finger in half and have it show up in a matchbox. I would invent things and build models. I was always curious about science. But I came under the sway of the idea in the 50s that by high school you chose either the arts or sciences. So in high school and college, I chose the arts. It was only after college that I got drawn back to science. Books about science are mostly what I read. I don’t read novels much because they sound made up. I realize I shouldn’t be so snooty, I write fiction too but it is based on things I have lived through.
Q: Like it or not, most people identify you with that loveable wise-ass doctor, Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Are you more like Hawkeye or was he more like you?
A: I didn’t understand how I would become Hawkeye because he was so different from me. When I play a role I like to play different from me. I like to start each character fresh. That’s the fun of it. The thing is when I act I think “how would I do it if I were that person?” In “Crimes and Misdemeanors” I played a skuzzy guy, Lester. When the script called for him to hit on a woman, it was improvised. I thought to myself “if I were going to hit on her, how would I do it?
Q: Now that you have taken up teaching, what is that bringing to your life that you did not have before?
A: It’s really very exciting and a new direction. For my students it’s a new took in their kit as they move on and they feel good. I feel good because I can elicit that feeling out of them. I gave a lot of thought to teaching. I realized scientists were much more communicative when they were having free-flowing conversations rather than when they were giving a lecture. I won’t let them lecture in my course. I grab them and shake communication out of them.
Q: Where do you think communication falls apart, especially in the science area, say a medical professional and lay person? I am guessing most of us have left a doctor’s office more than once not knowing what he or she just said.
A: It doesn’t have to be that way. You can be more communicative about any information. That’s what makes us different from the animals. We read faces, voices and dedicate an enormous of amount of time on communicating. Why ignore that when we are trying to talk about something that is of vital importance. Look at Madame Curie, Her description on how she discovered radium is so personal. It is almost shocking when comparing it to a current scientific report. The point is, know your audience. If you are talking to someone in your line of work, shortcuts and jargon can be used. But it’s not necessary when you are communicating with someone from outside that profession
Q: What is your “Flame Challenge?”
A: It started when I was asked to write a guest editorial for a science magazine and I was sitting in the chair I am now sitting in and looking at what I was writing and it wasn’t personal and I had hit a stone wall. I remembered when I was 11 that I was fascinated with the flame at a candle and what made it so. I asked my teacher and she said “oxidation” and that wasn’t very satisfying and underscores why it is so important to communicate in plain words. Anyway, I started writing again, this time in plain words and realized that when I finished writing, I had an online contest. And the first question was “What is a flame?” We asked 800 scientists to send in answers that were judged by 6,000 kids. Kids review the answers and comment on why they do or do not like the answers. The question this year is “What is time?” and we have more than 20,000 kids judging the scientists’ answers to that one. I haven’t seen the answers yet but kids and scientists and organizations of scientists are excited about this contest. I didn’t mean it to be an early science experiment for kids, but that is what it has become.
Q: Do you stay in touch with anyone from M*A*S*H? What do you like to watch now on television?
A: We try to get together once a year. As far as tv, I don’t watch much. I usually would rather watch people talk to each other. I watch some tv, “Homeland” and “Dontown Abbey.”
Q: What work of yours are you proudest of?
A: I don’t think I like that question. What I do think about is what work did I feel good about and what work could I have done better. I did a reading workshop with Tony Kushner a couple of weeks ago and we had a wonderful time. It was hard to do but we worked hard and came up with good work. And that felt good.
Q: The projects you wish you could take back?
A: Every actor hates three-quarters of what he or she did and then there are things you did that have no effect, wouldn’t have mattered if you did them or not. I have no regrets.
Q: Television, Broadway, books, teaching, what would you like to do next?
A: I don’t know. I am in this really happy place right now where I can do what interests me and not do what doesn’t.
Q: Something no one knows about you?
A: I don’t think I want to answer that. If I told you that would be one less thing I would have that is my own.