Special magazine report: Learning in the Digital Age
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Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk, hosted on September 30, 2013. I am Steve Mirsky. On August 7th Scientific American and McMillan Science and Education hosted a summit called Learning in the Digital Age at Google’s New York City offices. As part of the summit Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina sat down with science aficionado and long-time Scientific American, Alan Alda.
M. DiChristina: I know I don’t actually have to introduce the man who’s sitting next to me, but I’m just so thrilled to have the privilege of sitting here and talking a bit. I want to just frame, and you probably all know this, but I like to say things out loud; it’s one of the things editors in chief like to do. So I’m going to tell you just a little bit about him. We’re going to have a chat and then I’m going to invite you to join in the conversation, as we’ve been doing during the day today.
So, obviously, Alan Alda, welcome.
Alan Alda: Thank you.
M. DiChristina: Thank you so much for coming. You know, Alan Alda has made communicating science to the public into something of an art form in and of itself, which I love. And on top of that, he’s expressed a passion for all of us about helping to do that communication that I think has been really inspiring, certainly to me personally, and I think to everybody in the room. But let me tell you a couple of the concrete ways, just to refresh some memories. So he was host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS from 1993 to 2005, and interviewed many hundreds and hundreds of scientists, getting to draw them out on the wonderful research they were doing and getting them, more importantly, out of the sort of lecture hall idea that people have about scientists to see the incredible work that we do.
He thus inspired Stony Brook University to create a Center for Communicating Science, which has this sort of unique mission of doing that with scientists themselves. A lot of the other universities, such as the one that I went to, focused on communicating to the public communicators, like journalists like me, but this is unique, working with the scientists directly. And in 2011 and then subsequently Mr. Alda initiated the flame challenge, where he harnessed, which we’ll talk about a little bit, the rare sort of challenge of trying to explain how a flame actually works, what it is, to 11-year-olds. And then had hundreds of 11-year-olds do the judging, which I think is amazing.
Alan Alda: Thousands.
M. DiChristina: Thousands.
Alan Alda: Mm-hmm.
M. DiChristina: And more than 800 scientists participated in that challenge. And they did another one on something equally familiar and mysterious on the nature of time, which was also wonderful.
He’s won seven Emmy Awards and six Golden Globes, created wonderful characters in movies that I think we have all seen, written them himself, directed himself. He was the first person to win an Emmy in three categories: for acting, directing, and writing. And in 2005—I love this stat. I know I’ve seen it, but I think everybody should hear it, he had the distinction of publishing at the same time a best-selling book called Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve learned, of being nominated for an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy all in the same year. Isn’t that amazing?
Alan Alda: I’m so amazing, it’s just-
M. DiChristina: And see, do you ever have this-
Alan Alda: I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say.
M. DiChristina: Yeah, how did you get here? And if his work with helping scientists talk to the public wasn’t enough, he’s actually played a scientist himself on Broadway in QED, where he played the physicist Richard Fineman. So for all of these reasons, I can’t tell you how – maybe you can tell how excited. I don’t have to tell; you can tell how excited I am—
Alan Alda: Thank you.
M. DiChristina: -to thank and congratulate Alan Aldo for his lifetime of achievement in communicating and advancing science to the public. And this is actually the very first Scientific American Award for this wonderful lifetime achievement. And I was afraid to lift it and maybe drop it on this poor man. So congratulations.
Alan Alda: That’s so great. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This is wonderful. You don’t know how much this means to me, because I – since I was a boy I’ve been interested in science. When I was six I would sneak into my mothers’ bedroom and try to mix her face powder with toothpaste to see if it would blow up.
Alan Alda: And before – and I was always putting things together to experiment. Fortunately I was too short to reach the shelf where the explosive things really were.
But in the ‘50s, when C.P. Snow was talking about the two cultures of the arts and science, I didn’t know who he was, but I was living his lecture, because I was still interested in science, but I thought, as the culture taught me, that it was true, that you were either interested in science or the arts, and I knew I was going to be in the arts and I didn’t study science, which I have regretted all my life since. But in my 20s I started reading Scientific American, every issue cover-to-cover until today. You know how many years that is? It’s about 112 years.
M. DiChristina: That’s good, ‘cause Scientific American is 168 now.
Alan Alda: There you go. I know. And it’s the second-oldest or the oldest science magazine.
M. DiChristina: The oldest, 1845.
Alan Alda: Yeah, great. So and then I started doing Scientific American Frontiers, even closer connected to the magazine. And then one day one of the stories we did on the show you were covering in the magazine; it was about 3-D digital modeling, and there was a picture on the cover of Scientific American of my face modeled digitally. I had become a Scientific American cover boy. You know, and I thought that was the highlight of my life, and now this. It really means a great deal to me; thank you.
M. DiChristina: The original Scientific American and it means a great deal to me. Let’s talk a little bit about – I mean, thank you; that was a wonderful story. Let’s talk a little bit about you were in Scientific American Frontiers and you’ve done many subsequent things on PBS.
Alan Alda: Yeah, we have another series that the same producer, Graham Chedd of Scientific Frontiers, and I got together and did a show that’s going to be on PBS in September, two one-hour shows about the intersection of new brain science and the justice system, and it’s called Brains on Trial, and it really is fascinating. So many new things that are learned about that are now known about the brain and in so many ways how they’re interacting with the justice system already and how they might in the future, and possibly too soon before they’re ready to be useful and fair.
M. DiChristina: I love this confluence that I’m seeing through the flame challenge; we know it, but we don’t know it.
Alan Alda: Yeah. Right.
M. DiChristina: Or time; we know it, but we don’t know it. The brain, we all have this illusion that we know it, but we don’t know it.
Alan Alda: Right. Well, we certainly use it, and sometimes not enough. But we use it and act like it’s – it’s like when you get in your car and you don’t know how it works, but you expect to get there. And it’s really amazing how much more is being known. But you’re right, the things that we think we know, that we can learn more about, that’s a fascinating area. And the flame challenge, you know, when I was talking it made me realize we could have even further reach with social networking, because the first year we did it we had 800 scientists who submitted entries on what a flame is so that an 11-year-old can understand it. And we had 6,000 kids in schools around the world who were judging those entries, including an Aboriginal class in Australia. I mean they were all over the world.
M. DiChristina: That’s great.
Alan Alda: And this year, again, hundreds of scientists, but 10,000 kids – 12 – 20,000 kids this year.
M. DiChristina: Twenty-thousand.
Alan Alda: Amazing. And it’s so we could get even more kids if we connect them up with Twitter and stuff like that, probably. Yeah. We’re now making notes on this.
M. DiChristina: So _____ also, we have-
Alan Alda: That’s Christine O’Connell, who runs the flame challenge.
M. DiChristina: [Laughter] So let’s turn a little bit to getting the scientists in directly, communicating science to the public and what you’re doing at the center.
Alan Alda: Yeah. You know, that means a great deal to me. And it was a dream of mine, starting about ten years ago – maybe even more than that, because as I was finishing up Scientific American Frontiers I realized that we had developed something that was unusual as a way to communicate science. I wasn’t inviting them to make little lectures to the camera. On the contrary, every time I caught them doing that I pulled them back and – sometimes physically pulled them back and say, “I’m trying to understand this and I don’t get it. I don’t get that language and I don’t get,” – you know, the tone of voice wasn’t communicative; it was very formal and stilted. But when they really realized that I needed to know, because I was curious what their work was all about, and I could get excited about it, and they could see me get excited the better I understood it. Then they changed and they became more communicative and they were – their tone was warmer, the look on their face was more excited, their humor came out more. The real them came out and the jargon fell away and they were talking in plain language.
Well, I thought after that scientists could be among the best communicators of their own work if they could speak in their own voice with their own authenticity, and if their own passion for their work could show up. I mean there’s nobody more passionate about their work than scientists in the whole world. One of the people I – one of the 700 people I interviewed was a woman who studied a certain kind of spider. And to be there in the morning when the spider woke up she slept out in the desert on a lava bed every night for seven years. Now is that passionate or what?
Alan Alda: I mean you can’t get more passionate than that. And I thought, “What could we do to help scientists have that personal tone, that communicate connection to the audience, when they don’t have somebody like me pulling it out of them?” And I thought, “Why don’t we train scientists, all during their science education, not just for a couple of minutes, couple of hours, you know, where-
M. DiChristina: Media training.
Alan Alda: Media, where you teach them – give them two hours of how to talk in sound bites. That’s not the thing; the thing is to have this communicative skill. And it’s like an art that you have to teach them; you have to transform them a little bit. And they want to be transformed.
So I helped start the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, and we make use of something that I learned early in my life that changed me, that transformed me, and now we can transform scientists with it, and that’s improvisation. We teach them improvisation, which is not making things up and it’s not comedy; it’s learning step-by-step in a rigorous way, in a rule-driven way to make contact with the other player, and then when they turn to the audience and talk to them, they’re making contact with them as real people; they look them right in the eye when they talk to them and they can see if the people are getting it. And if the people aren’t getting it they can change what they’re saying. So it’s really a two-way street, the way it was with me and the scientists on Scientific American Frontiers. And they’re eating it up and now we’ve done workshops and presentations and about 75 other scientific institutions, other universities are beginning to affiliate with us. So it’s very exciting and my dream is coming true.
M. DiChristina: I think that I love your dream.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
M. DiChristina: Would you tell the audience what you were just telling me, about the actors who you also work with?
Alan Alda: For the first time in years I was asked to run a master class in Wisconsin at the Lynne Fontanne house, and they had ten actors, some of the best actors in the country with 20 or 30 years experience. And I was teaching them improv for a whole week, and they kept asking me, “Are we better than the scientists?”
Alan Alda: And in some cases it took them a while to get as good as the scientists. But they were – but one thing is good about teaching improv to scientists; it’s rules that they have to learn, and they’re very good at sticking to the rules. And you’re not allowed to act, and they don’t come in with, you know, a tendency towards acting; they just have to play according to the rules. And when they do, the real them comes out, and it’s so engaging. And they also – we had specific games to play that train them in how to say their story, tell their story about their work in many different ways to different kinds of people. And it’s really exciting to see them shift like that.
We have a group of – the first group of young scientists that I worked with, three or four years ago, I guess, and we’ve gone out doing demonstrations, and on the spur of the moment once I called them, “Here they are, the Bunsen Burners.” And now this original group of Bunsen Burners are our advocates, they’re evangelists; they’re just great.
M. DiChristina: I love that. And also I like the virtuous circle you’ve created, because now you have evidence for the other scientists who are coming in that it works.
Alan Alda: That’s right, yeah.
M. DiChristina: And they like that too, right?
Alan Alda: Yeah.
M. DiChristina: So let’s circle back to the flame challenge just for a minute. Now we talked about 11-year-olds; we didn’t tell people why you picked 11-year-olds.
Alan Alda: Oh yeah. Well, when I was 11 – it’s interesting, it comes from a personal story, and a personal story is always a good way to start. When I was 11 I was fascinated with the flame at the end of a candle, and I thought about this for several days, “What is it, what’s going on in that flame?” Because it had these strange properties; it gave off light, it was hot, you could put your finger through it, if you did it fast enough it wouldn’t burn. What is all this? And I hadn’t seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. So I said to my teacher, “What’s a flame? What’s going on in there?” And she thought for a second and she said, “It’s oxidation” and that’s it.
Alan Alda: And I thought, “She just called it by a different name. It’s like saying, ‘The flame, that’s Fred,’ you know.”
Alan Alda: And I never learned what a flame was, and it wasn’t until I was writing a guest editorial for Science magazine and I started with this story and ended with proposing a contest, and then we realized, when I shared it with the Center for Communicating Science, we realized we could make the 11-year-olds the judges. And then we got this great bonus, because the whole idea was not to teach kids about the flame, but to teach scientists how hard it is to communicate in words so simple, yet accurate, that an 11-year-old can understand it and actually have something that he didn’t have or she didn’t have before intellectually.
But the bonus we got was that by involving the kids, they got so excited about this that they all – they kept reporting that they were more interested in science now than they had been before. And we have videos of them judging the scientists’ entries, and they are so serious about it, so smart, so creative in saying, you know – one kid said this great thing, he said, “You know, it’s okay that they’re funny,” because they were trying to appeal to 11-year-olds, so some of them were trying to be comical. You know, he said, “It’s okay to be funny, but, you know, they have to give us information.
Alan Alda: This kid said, “We’re 11-year-olds, we’re not 7.”
Alan Alda: So they’re great, and that’s a great interaction that we’ve begun and we do it every year. Now we’re sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the AAAS and we’re very excited about how it’s going. And it keeps growing every year.
M. DiChristina: I think that’s so amazing about science, how if you touch it it comes and touches you.
Alan Alda: Yeah. That’s right.
M. DiChristina: And rather permanently, too, I think for a lot of us.
Alan Alda: It is. Because as you were saying before, kids are scientific from the beginning, and yet you have to meet them where they are. This thing of talking to the audience as if they’re really there and really seeing them means you have to really see the kid when you talk to the kid. And you can’t be so drunk on your own knowledge that you don’t know what it’s like not to know what you know. ‘Cause some people have called that the “curse of knowledge,” where you have to understand what – and remember what it’s like not to know it at the depth you know it.
There’s a wonderful example of this that I lived through. I was on vacation with my family and we were in a tropical resort. And my grandson, who was about six or seven at the time, was walking down a path with me. And we saw this tree that neither of us had ever seen before, and it was on this skinny trunk; there were all these spikes sticking out of it. It looked like the back of a dinosaur, all these triangular spikes, really sharp things. And he said, “Look at that. Why is that tree like that?” and I thought, “Oh, this is so great, I can talk about evolution with him and teach him about evolution, how the tree got that way.” And we sat on the ground and we had a conversation about evolution for 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes of this. And next day he was swimming with his cousin and he asked her a question and she said, “It sounds like a science question. Why don’t you ask Grandpa?” He said, “I’m not making that mistake again.”
Alan Alda: You’ve got to meet them where they are, you know?
M. DiChristina: Okay. Hard to follow that one up. Perhaps some of you might have some questions you’d like to ask Alan Alda as well.
Audience Member: Can you tell us some of those rules you taught the scientists?
Alan Alda: Well, the rules are specifically with regard to improvising. Now first of all, in general the principles that we try to convey are to speak in everyday language and to become aware of jargon. Very often jargon is so embedded in the insider that they don’t realize it’s jargon. And interestingly it extends even further. I’ve found that very often when people are talking rapidly about their work, the most important term to their work is one that they mumble or brush through because they’ve said it so many thousands of times. And that’s the term that’s probably hardest for us to understand; we’ve maybe never heard it before. And not only does it need to be said slowly, it needs to be explained.
But the rules I’m talking about are the rules of improvisation that were devised by this woman called Viola Spolin about 60 or 70 years ago, and they’re called Theater Games. And she has a book called Improvisation for the Theater. And they really are pretty much only taught well by somebody who’s been trained to teach the games. But what they do is by following these rules – for instance, simple rules would be like having to observe the other person so that you – well, for instance, if the other person deals with something in the environment, you have to see it and deal with the same thing in the environment while you’re talking about something else. It becomes so difficult because the environment is made out of space; it’s all imaginary. So it becomes so difficult to figure out what the person is doing and to make that same contact that your mind is not on what you’re saying, it’s not on how you’re doing, it’s not on whether people wonder if you’re fat or whatever; your mind is only on solving this problem. And in doing this thousands of times, pretty soon you become accustomed to dealing with something outside yourself, and especially dealing with the other person, and not worrying about you. And you get accustomed to this slight that takes place when you accept the words that are coming to you, accept the ideas that are coming to you; you don’t have to read them, you don’t have to memorize it verbatim. You know your work so well that you feel confident you can talk about it in a human interactive way.
So the rules are very specific to the games and it would take too long to go into all the games.
M. DiChristina: You remind me actually of a time when I was about to do a live interview with a young scientist who was just starting off, and he was trembling before the interview. And I said, “You’re going to be great. You know all this stuff cold.” He said, “What you don’t understand is that until this moment, until this interview, everything I’ve done has been about acquiring the jargon to share with other people who will then judge me on that facility, and now I have to learn how to do it in a different way.”
Alan Alda: That’s why my dream has been to teach communication to scientists all through the science education, and not just a quick thing at the end. Because you really have to learn in a way this other language, this other way of communicating. Because for very good reasons science is taught as a way – in the process of teaching science, scientists are taught for very good reasons not to bring in emotion, not to bring in their personality. I wouldn’t want to cross a bridge that was built on the cult of personality.
Alan Alda: I’d want to cross a bridge that was done with good engineering, solid, you know, emotion-free engineering. But when you’re talking about your work and you’re trying to get other people interested in it enough to fund it or to just be interested in it and get the joy of experiencing it as you get it , then you’ve got to talk in a personal way; you’ve got to let your emotions come out. But it doesn’t mean you have to get so emotional you have a nervous breakdown in front of the audience. You want to be able to, though, evoke emotion in them, let them see what an amazing, wondrous place the universe is, and especially the part of it you’re focusing on.
That’s why I read Scientific American cover to cover, because it’s full of wonder. It just makes me so happy to see smart peoples’ brains at work. That’s one of the real joys of nature, is just to watch other people figure out nature. And the more you learn the more fun is it to hear your own wheels turning and cranking and clicking and squeaking.
M. DiChristina: Another-
Alan Alda: Here’s somebody over here.
M. DiChristina: Oh, thank you.
Alan Alda: Here comes a mic.
Audience Member: It’s a pleasure to see you. And what a trek, from M*A*S*H to science. I mean that’s really quite a journey. I wondered if you have any programs out at Stony Brook for young children, you know, teenagers? Anything out there?
Alan Alda: To transfer science to teenagers?
Audience Member: Yes, teen. Yes.
Alan Alda: Do we? But Christine can – Christine is at Stony Brook, so this is Christine O’Connell.
Christine O’Connell: Everyone, we have a few programs, one of which we started – we piloted this past year, in teaching graduate students and working with them to develop presentations to go to local high schools and talk about their research in that sense. But we’re really focused on teaching graduate students and scientists how to do that and helping provide those forums for them to go out and talk to kids, high school students, even community members.
Alan Alda: Yeah, I forgot that; that’s a wonderful program. So that’s like how kids start out as young scientists and then somewhere along the way we lose them. Well, if we’ve got graduate students who have been trained in this personal approach, trained to make contact with kids, and they go to schools and actually make contact with them, then there’s a chance that we will not lose them so much at that stage. And then there’s another chance we have to not lose them that we work on at Stony Brook, which is when undergraduates who are not in science are invited to take courses in science to see if they might be interested in a career in science, they’re traditionally exposed to teaching assistants who know the material, but don’t have any training in communication or teaching. And often, way too often undergraduates who are not yet interested in science lose interest in science and drop out of the class, and we may be losing scientists that way. And what we’re doing now is training teaching assistants specifically in these techniques of communication, and we’ve seen so far getting great results. They’re really getting really good reports back on this. So that’s another chance not to have them lose interest.
M. DiChristina: I also could just point really quickly, although pardon the shameless plug, on ScientificAmerican.com we have free activities for parents and their kids that are science inquiry-based things; they’re called Bring Science Home, it’s off our home page. Also we have a program called 1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days, which we actually have a couple of thousand scientists signed up for, who will visit the classroom and come in and talk about science. And then we feature citizen science programs, including one called Whale.FM, which is about listening to the music of the whale calls-
Alan Alda: Oh, great.
M. DiChristina: -where you can make science happen with your kids, which I do.
Alan Alda: Yeah. And, you know, there are also these group community – I forget the exact term for it, where you can enter a site. I don’t know if you – but I used to promote this on the Scientific American Frontier’s website, you can enter a site and help map the surface of Mars and that kind of thing. Or you can – just wonderful sites. And there must be a dozen or two dozen of them, maybe more now, that kids can really – I used to have fun; I was helping map the surface of the Mars, and I thought it just was so thrilling to know that.
M. DiChristina: That is thrilling. I mean that goes back to what we were talking about before, about humans collaborating.
Alan Alda: Yeah, right.
M. DiChristina: Getting creative minds together to do great things.
Alan Alda: And the more you do, the more interested you get in doing it. So even if you do something minor on a website, like contributing to the settee thing, is there life on other planets. I don’t know if they still are doing that, but you’re involved in something scientific and you know you’re involved in the community that’s doing that. And we were talking before about what herd animals we are and how important it is to know you’re a part of a community. You were going to say something?
M. DiChristina: So there’s one question over here, I think probably the last one.
Steve Mirsky: Okay. Yeah, I’m Steve Mirsky from Scientific American. If you’re not sick of telling the story, I thought this audience would enjoy the conversation you had with the surgeon in Chile just before your operation.
Alan Alda: You know, I don’t tell that – this is going to go out somewhere, right? This is going to-
M. DiChristina: Is it ______?
Alan Alda: I don’t tell that story in public unless I’m at a talk I give where I’m raising a huge amount of money for the Center for Communicating Science. It’s such a good story, I don’t want it to be a rerun when I tell it for the benefit of-
Alan Alda: I mean if you all could come up with a couple of hundred thousand dollars.
Alan Alda: It’s a really good story.
M. DiChristina: That’s a good crowd activity I think we could all do. All right, maybe one other really quick one then. There’s somebody in the front here.
Audience Member: Thank you very much. Really, really interesting conversation. So you talked about meeting the kids where they are. And kids today are growing up in an Internet age and, you know, my son, who is 14 years old, is growing up in an age where all of his communications and his interactions are through his iPhone and the computer and the iPad. And then I see scientists, even in our own organization, who are actually not digitally very savvy, so they don’t know how to communicate science through these new media, and kids are using new media using more and more to actually learn. So how do we address that challenge? How do we teach scientists who are not digitally savvy to actually communicate in a, you know, digital world?
Alan Alda: Well, we do have courses at Stony Brook University specifically for scientists to learn in that area how to use new media. And I don’t teach that class, so I wouldn’t presume to give you a rundown of what’s taught. But it is possible to train them. But again, I really would suggest that it’s not something – like all of communication in science, it’s not something that you can just give a few tips on. You know, I mean they used to say if you’re talking to an audience vary the rate of speech, use your hands for gestures. This is all external stuff. What we do is work on things at a deeper level so that all of these other things are automatic, and your speech will vary if you’re really talking to people, if you’re really making contact with them. And there are many things about using new media, that while I won’t pretend I know anything about it, can be taught, and taught in an organized way over time, so that it’s actually learned rather than just being exposed to.
I just reminded myself of something else and then I forgot it. This is a won – we ought to study that.
M. DiChristina: I think probably – I think we should study that.
Alan Alda: Yeah.
M. DiChristina: But I think probably this is a good point to conclude about our human connections, about reaching the kids where they live, about the – I love the turn of the emotion-free engineering, but also the passion of science that ignites us through things like the flame challenge and so on. And I wanted to thank our wonderful speakers, you terrific participants, our lovely hosts at Google, and especially Alan Alda, who made my I think life as the editor of Scientific American.
Alan Alda: Thank you all, it’s really been a pleasure. It’s been a pleasure to look in your faces while we had this conversation. Thank you.
Alan Alda: Thank you.
Alan Alda: Thank you so much. It’s great. I really appreciate it.
Steve Mirsky: You will recall that all Alda mentioned a program for PBS called Brains on Trial. The two episodes of Brains on Trial aired earlier in September, but they are available in their entirety at www.PBS.org for free. And Alan Alda’s two memoirs, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve Learned and Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself are both available at Audible.com, read by Alan Alda himself. Remember the story I asked Alda to tell and he declined? Well he spills those beans in Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.
Well that’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site, www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can watch videos of the entire summit Learning in the Digital Age. And follow us on Twitter, where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
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