Science Talk

Alan Alda's Human Spark

Alan Alda, star of stage, screen and science, talks with podcast host Steve Mirsky about his new PBS science series The Human Spark as well as his strong interest in science and long association with Scientific American

Alan Alda, star of stage, screen and science, talks with podcast host Steve Mirsky [pictured at left] about his new PBS science series The Human Spark as well as his strong interest in science and long association with Scientific American. Web sites related to this episode include;;

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on January 7th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky.

Alda: This question that keeps coming up: What makes us human? What is it that distinguishes us from the other animals?

Steve: That's the familiar voice of Alan Alda. He brings a new science series to PBS this week, The Human Spark. For three episodes he meets with scientists in different disciplines around the world to try to understand what's so special about you and me and all us naked apes. On January 6th, Alda came by the Scientific American offices and sat down with me and a small group of editors and writers from the magazine and Web site.

Steve: Everybody—Alan Alda is here.

Alda: Hello everybody.

Steve: We'll get to the show in a second, The Human Spark.

Alda: Yeah.

Steve: Let me be self-serving, self in terms of our institution here. I read your book, the first one.

Alda: Yes. Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.

Steve: Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. You go into some detail in the book about the kind of profound effect that Scientific American magazine had on you.

Alda: Yeah, I had been reading Scientific American I guess for almost about 50 years—pretty much every issue and pretty much every article—and I went from not having any idea what I was reading to getting a little bit more of a sense of a language; and it was to me like learning a new language. It really helped me get away from magical thinking into a kind of thinking based on evidence, and [I] was really grateful to the magazine for that.

Steve: You had been dabbling in the [Edgar Cayce] world.

Alda: Yeah, I had; you know, it was in the culture. Actually it was in the culture long before it got into the mainstream of the culture. I was really surprised years later after I had decided that there was little if anything of interest in it for me, that people were doing things like automatic [writing or] they were talking about poltergeist and that kind of thing, and I had already gone and explored it. It interested me that Russia was supposed to be doing experiments in what was then called extrasensory perception. It turns out that sensory perception is unreliable enough.

Steve: It's really true, you talk about that in the book, about memories having been implanted in you and you've started with.

Alda: I know it just amazed me when I was doing Scientific American Frontiers. I interviewed a psychiatrist from Harvard who actually made me remember things that I had never seen. And that sounds a little bit crazier than what actually happened but it is what happened. I watched an event take place and then some photographs were taken of that event and a few minutes later, I was shown photographs. Some of the photographs were what I had actually seen and some were restaged later, [after] I had gone with the same people. It was a picnic I was watching. So after I left at the same picnic they did a few things that I had not seen and photographed [it]. And then when they showed me the photographs, I knew some of the things that were in the photographs where things I had not actually seen, but I looked at the photographs, and I wasn't asked to judge which were which. [About] three days later they said "Okay now, which of these things did you actually see", and I couldn't tell whether I had seen them in person or if I had seen them in a photograph, and that doesn't really seem like a big deal except that if you can put something in somebody's head through a photograph and make them think they saw it, that really calls in to question the value of an eye witness. And you might even be able to do it by saying, "When you saw the guy come in wearing a red sweater, [did] he stab the other person with a knife? And pretty soon the red sweater starts to be what you think you saw. [You know, so it] was an extraordinary experience. Yeah sensory perception is questionable, too.

Steve: Then the world is a pretty magical place without the magic.

Alda: Yeah, that's what I think. I mean that's what I really got to be caught up in: The amazing and really never ending story of trying to understand the universe. It never stops. There's every door that's opened leads to a hundred other closed doors that you have to try to get [through]. And that frustrates some people, I guess. You know, when they read in the newspaper, this is good for you and then six months later they read, oh, it's bad for you. they get impatient with the scientists for not making up their minds, but in fact what they are reading is a condensed version of just one study that shows one thing, and they really ex-communicate it from the joy of it which is we know this little bit, it seems to indicate that if we find out a little bit more we get even [a] greater knowledge of it. It's like a great detective story, and I just love reading it. Aside from Scientific American I read three or four other science magazines every issue, because it fascinates me.

Steve: You grew up reading Mechanics Illustrated?

Alda: I did Mechanics Illustrated and for me Mechanics Illustrated was great because I loved the 20 pages of classified ads before anything else happened. I just loved reading how people had these little, little ads about half-an-inch deep, where they would entice other people to send the[m] money. You know, I just thought that was incredible. If you write the right paragraph, people will send you dollars. And I actually started up a photo coloring business. I was about 12, and you know they didn't have color photography at that time, or at least it wasn't very available. So people would send me pictures, and I would color, you know, with little oil[s] and stuff, and they would send me dollars. They only sent me about $5, but it paid for the ad.

Steve: Speaking of doors opening, how did you wind up hosting Scientific American Frontiers all those years?

Alda: I got a letter from the producers asking me if I was interested in hosting the show, and I my guess was that what they really wanted me to do was to come on camera [at the] beginning and say, "Welcome to the show", and then to get off camera and read a narration, and I really wasn't interested in that. But I said to them that if you are interested, what really intrigues me is if I can talk to the scientists and if I can interview them and have conversations with them, because then I knew that I will be spending the whole day, you know, not just on camera but the rest of the day having a chance to talk with them about their work and that really interested me a lot. And they took [a] big chance doing that because they did know how it would work, and I wasn't a professional interviewer. I was just curious. But what was really good, and [what] none of us expected, was that what would happen is that it would be common improvisation where I would use a couple of skills I have as an actor, one of which is to listen, and I would get to exercise my curiosity. And that became a dynamic interaction between me and the scientists where I could see a change in their faces when they really had to talk to me and explain to me what they did, so that I understood it. I wasn't there to just lob questions to them, so that they could make a lecture to the camera about what they did. The actually had to make me understand. And that changed their voice, [it] changed their face, and it engaged them and made them more engaging. And we just stumbled into that just because I was curious in the first place and wanted to be able to talk to them. But it was the conversation that changed it.

Steve: And you have just been [teaching] scientists some of these improvisation[al] acting techniques in an effort to get them to communicate better.

Alda: I have, it's kind of an experiment that I am doing, partly because I realized how much it benefited, most of the scientists to get engaged in the conversation and not to go into lecture mode; [it] made them so much more appealing and easier to understand and make their work easier to understand. So I thought I benefited in my life as an actor from studying improvisation, and everybody I know who has improvised for [a] certain period of time, has become more charismatic, you know, every actor I know. So I thought I will experiment with this, and I had a friend, [a] teacher who taught at the U.S.C., and I was going to be at U.S.C. one day, so [I said, "Why don't you] ask 20 engineering students to come in prepared to talk about their work for about two minutes."

Steve: You picked engineering students because you figured they would be the most obtuse?

Alda: Not necessarily, I just knew that they had an engineering school there. [Go ahead,] get me in trouble with the engineers then. So they came in and they talked about their work, each for about two minutes. And then we did about three hours of improvising games, which are very rigorous and not just getting up and making things up. They go by strict rules which they have to follow. At the end I asked them to get up again and talk for a minute or so about their work and it was amazing, the difference. There was a real difference; they were much more conversational. They made eye contact; their language was a little more personal. I did ask them to be more personal, so it wasn't just a result of the improvising, but they were more engaging. So now I have done [that] at a couple of other places. I just did a six-week course of workshops at Stony Brook, and we had physicists and biologists, and I also did it at Brookhaven Research Center. And I had been videotaping these sessions because I don't want to waste anybody's time, including my own. If it's going to work, I am going to have some record that it is working and how it worked and why it worked, and most importantly to what extent is [there a] carryover. I mean they may get better after one or two sessions. It may be because they are jumping around, you know they're getting physically energized, or it may be that the improvising over a period of time actually does make them selves more available to themselves and to the people they are talking to. So we are going to do more of this and will see if it has a lasting effect.

Steve: So you're running your own experiment there?

Alda: Yeah, it's hard to call it an experiment, although I do, because it's very hard to quantify that. So one of the sessions I had with the scientists, the last session I had, ended by my saying, "Look, what can we do to make this more like a real experiment? How can we quantify it, to see if we are making any progress?" So somebody there had a very good idea; this was one of the scientists. [He] said how about showing tapes to people, before and after tapes, and having them rate to what extent it's more accessible, and then maybe we will put it up on the Web and get a lot of people to react to this and see what an impartial group says, a group that doesn't know whether they are looking at the before or the after.

Steve: So back to doors opening and closing: Scientific American Frontiers ends its run, good run of 11 years for you.

Alda: Yeah.

Steve: And the producers get in touch with you again to do this program The Human Spark.

Alda: Yeah, actually as we were finishing one of the last recording sessions for Scientific American Frontiers, Graham Chedd who was one of the producers on Frontiers and is a producer on Human Spark, said to me, "What do you think, I got this idea; [you know] we used to have all these conversations when we [were] on the road in Europe and Africa, all over the world, in China, interviewing scientists and we [would] always get together in the evening and talk about this question that keeps coming up—what makes us human? what is [it] that distinguishes us from the other animals? And why don't we do a show on that and call it the Human Spark?" And I said "That's great; I don't remember any of these conversations." But he says we had them.

Steve: Really, you had them.

Alda: Yeah, but it is a really interesting subject and I am very glad that he claims we had these conversations, because what we are able to do on these shows [that] we were never able to do on Scientific American Frontiers is to devote three hour[-long] programs, three one-hour length programs, to one subject and not do, you know, a five-minute subject and then follow up with a completely different question. This week explore this question for three hours: What is it that makes us humans? And we do it in, you know, from different directions: How different are we from the other animals? And secondly how did we get that way? How did we evolve to be the animals we are? And third where is it in our brains where these differences have taken root and how do these centers of the brain operate together to make us who we are and how we work?

Steve: And that's in our third episode that will be on January 20th, and you are the subject—you get your brain scanned. They examined your brain and found anything?

Alda: Yeah, they found something. What I found was acute anxiety [of] the machine. On all these science shows, over you know, now 12 or 13 years, I have had my brain scanned many times and finally it got to me. They had me in a machine and I got an anxiety attack, partly because they forgot to give me a little bulb to squeeze if I was in trouble. And they forgot to give it to me, I think, because they kept talking about things they had seen me do on television, you know, and so it was like my celebrity got in the way of reality and they shoved me, they start to slide me into this tube, and as I am going in I am thinking "they didn't give me the bulb"; and I have never needed the bulb but as soon as I was in there without it, I needed it, and so I tried to calm myself. And now I can see that they're in the other room behind glass and they are looking at the monitors, they're looking at the dials on the board and not looking at me and they can't hear me, so I started waving my legs and same [as] before, nothing, nothing is happening. Finally the cameraman says, "I think he is waving his legs at us. And they finally pulled me out, and I have never been in a machine since then, and I don't think I ever will again." They got enough pictures of my brain. [I] hope I don't run into a brain problem because I am stuck if I do. Somebody said to me, "Oh, you know, now they have [a] stand-up MRI machine." Well what is that, like a comedian runs it?

Steve: You had an interesting interaction in the second episode with [a] rather large chimpanzee.

Alda: Oh my God! That was …

Steve: I remember, I've seen the scene, but your line was, "Now that's an exit."

Alda: Oh! That was all right; he was like 15-feet away in [a] big cage and slammed himself against the window before he left. It was a pretty good exit. But the other one that, you may not have seen [that].

Steve: I haven't seen this one yet.

Alda: I was sitting with Brian Hare, primatologist, and we were sitting on a bench and we were right next to a big glass window on the other side of which was this natural setting where all these chimps were. You know when you see chimps in the movies or on television they are these cute animals because...

Steve: They are babies.

Alda: Yeah, they're trainable as babies and they are controllable, right? This guy was fully grown. He was, I don't know, he weighed a lot and he was very big. And I was first aware of him as I was talking to the scientist and all of a sudden this huge thing slams himself against the window about an inch from my face, and I thought I was going to be killed, and he wouldn't have mind[ed] and…

Steve: The chimp [or] the scientist?

Alda: The chimp. The scientist [was] just objective, you know. And he did it about three or four times; and one time he did it right in the middle of our talking about how humans were able to be more, you know, we were more socialized then the other primates and we could, sort of, we always made an effort to see what was going on in the other person's mind; you know, this theory of mind idea. As we were talking about this, [this] guy, this chimp, slams into the window again and I [suddenly] realized this is the birth of politics.

Steve: The birth of current politics, actually.

Alda: Yes.

Steve: Actually, what did you personally come away with from all the work that you put in on this series?

Alda: I think the most interesting thing for me was about two things. One was realizing how close I was to the other animals. I had a good inkling, in fact, when I would talk about it; I would often say to the scientists, "We think we are different from the other animals. If we are different, what's the difference?" Because I wasn't that sure how different we were. Unlike the, you know, the old-fashioned way of looking at us having dominion over these other things and we are [so] different—we have a soul and they don't, and that kind of [thing], [which] I guess [means] you can't take your dog to heaven. I don't know, but what I—control yourself.

Steve: I am thinking about your dog.

Alda: My dog is stuffed. He's not going anywhere. So I really got a sense of being connected to the other animals to a much greater extent because there is a kind of a continuum. So [a lot] of the things we can do, they can do to a lesser extent. But what really got me was this notion that I heard from many of the scientists I talked to, that one of the big differences between us and the other animals is this acute sociability we have. The able to track one another, to know where we stand with one another and to constantly be aware of that—the theory of mind idea that we can, we spend a lot of our time figuring out what one another is thinking, not only about our selves but what you are thinking about her and what you're thinking she thinks of him and what he is thinking of her, and I am tracking that in you. So [as] one scientist [said] it goes to about the fifth level in us. It happens apparently to a minor degree, from what I have been told, with chimps. They do have some theory of mind apparently that they use but not this elevated, complicated sense [of it] that we have which enables us to make a lot of advances. Because if we combine that with our ability to innovate to invent then that puts us way ahead of the Neandertals. I had a really interesting conversation in a [little], in the middle of this square in a little French town having lunch with Randy White from N.Y.U.; and I said, "We and the Neandertals came from the same ancestors. And that first wave out of Africa wound up in Europe, and then when we found their fossils we called them Neandertals; but the ones who stayed in Africa, not who seem to, but who evolved into greater capabilities, were descended from the same people as the Neandertals. But much later they went up in a second wave to Europe and they outlasted the Neandertals. Why were they able to outlast them?" I asked Randy and he said it's because they were much more innovative; they could make more tools to deal with more kinds of environments. I said, "But everybody is telling me it's the sociability," and he said that [it's] the [same] thing, you can't have one without the other. Because if some genius Neandertal invents a new kind of hand axe—and they used the same kind for so long, for tens and tens [of] thousands of years—but if somebody in the cave invents a new one, it’s not going to spread beyond that cave probably, it might not even spread that much within the cave; it's [likely] to die with him; whereas the modern humans have this thing of watching each other and teaching other and spreading things among themselves among one another, so that 10,000 or so— [it] might have been a few more, I know that the people are not too clear about that might—there might only have been 10,000 Neandertals all over Europe. So they had geography to concern themselves with about getting an idea from one place to another, if that figure is true, but they also had from what I think scientists were able to figure out not as great [an] ability to communicate ideas, because they didn't have the same sense of sociability. Now how they understand this fascinates me. I just love how scientists can pick up from the tiniest clues something as broad a question and something as [ethereal] as a question of sociability; but they can look at beads and they can figure out how they are used and factors of economy that go into it. By reproducing the beads now they see how long it takes to make a bead, so if you are going to spend that much effort on it, it has to be important to [you]. Right, I mean all these wonderful ways of figuring things out using logic and imagination to look back into the past. Yeah, I just love it.

Steve: In episode 1, that is the episode I have seen, and [there] is a discussion of the beads and a comparison to Canal Street?

Alda: Oh, yeah, yes some of the things that they made apparently were [knockoffs]. I couldn't believe it. [Isn't] that] amazing? And they had this wonderful thing where some of the things that they made were made out of materials that were transported from a long distance and scientists feel that could probably only take place in the presence of trade routes—trading from one group to another all the way along a path [to where it] finally winds up, because those materials were not available where they were found and where they had been manufactured into objects of, like, beads and that kind of thing. The beads were sewn on like [sequins].

Steve: Well I noticed that you on the show say, "Oh! Like sequ[ins]" when they explained that it wasn't worn like a necklace but sewn onto the clothing, and you said, "Oh! Like sequins" and it immediately made me think, "Well you really know from sequ[ins]", based on the first few chapters of your book, which you should explain.

Alda: That's, I never heard that connection [made.] I grew up in burlesque, my father was in burlesque, where his costars, who were strippers, they went [in] for sequins a lot, yeah you're right.

Steve: [So, you've] had sequ[ins] on the mind a [long time].

Alda: Oh, well it gave me a lifelong interest, watching burlesque, but sequins], I mean, I guess, there you are—I mean that's the dawn of humanity right there at…

Steve: At the invention of sequins.

Alda: Minsky's Theater.

Steve: Which is close to my name, but…. This is kind of related—you talk in the book about the kind of thrill you got when you realized that when you put words to paper, it could have an effect in the future and in a different place.

Alda: Yeah, that was an interesting thing for me to find out. I mean, that's one of the things that I guess made me want to be a writer; there was something almost magical about that, [that] not only can you put words together in such way that it gets somebody else to have a feeling just by reading it; you don't, but then I realized, you don't have to be there. And it doesn't have to be today—you could be dead by the time they read it. Although that is, in real life that's affected by cultural things, like the fact that language changes and pretty much nobody knows who you are [when you're dead]; yeah, if you're dead long enough, nobody knows who you are. So, but it does project into the future, and it's funny that you bring it up, because one of the things that one of the scientists I talked to, a couple of the scientists that I talked to, mentioned was that people have this ability, modern humans have this ability to project themselves into the future and think about a future self so that the theory of mind that allows me to figure out where you are in your head now also enables me to think where I will be in my head tomorrow or ten years from now. And it enables me to plan for the future. So apparently that theory of mind is tied in to the very ability we have to operate in the future, to organize things, organize ourselves, organize others, organize projects. So it's funny in my early life when I was may be 8 and wanted to be a writer, I was going through what early people went through when they began to realize they could think about the future, too.

Steve: Yeah, you talk in the book a lot about how your own kind of psychic development over the course of your life has recapitulated [humanity's…]

Alda: It is. When we began to talk about in the beginning, just as science wasn't science as we know [it], when people were trying to read the stars, to understand the future or to understand even the present or one another, but astrology little by little turned in to astronomy and alchemy turned into chemistry. I had a similar progress in my life. I was interested in the occult, that kind of thing, [I] could cast a horoscope when I was in my 20s using the sidereal ephemeris—I love to say that. It tells you where everything is it every moment and you are supposed to be able to, it gives you all the tea leaves that you could read; but I went from that just the same way the rest of human history went of being interested in that kind of pseudoscience to actually seeing the pleasure in actual science, and the utility of it, too.

Steve: So the program again is these three Wednesdays today, so people won't hear this until the second episode is about to air probably, but they can go back on the PBS Web site and it will be archived there I presume, everything usually is.

Alda: I think it will be, yeah, on the PBS Web site: There actually, on the Human Spark Web site there is a lot of video footage that did not make it into the show. It should be in the show because it's so fascinating, many interviews that are really, really interesting, really have a bearing on what makes us human; and they are up on the Web site. So there's a lot to be seen on the Web site. Plus blogs by some of the scientists who I interviewed throwing more light on the things that we talk about on the show. And then people get to leave comments, and that's interesting to see how people respond to one another on this subject. It's a really interesting subject, you know, we take for granted so much about who we are and what we are capable of and how we got this way. To really raise the question with serious people who have explored it scientifically is a fascinating thing to do.

Steve: And that conversational style that you were able to achieve in Frontiers carries all over here and is just an incredibly engaging watch for the viewer.

Alda: Well, thank you. I had a great time doing [it]. I have seen this show now three or four times in the course of getting it ready to go on the air, and I really, I learn something new every time I see it.

Steve: That's funny, because you were there.

Alda: Yeah. Well one of the things I learned is I should have got[ten] a haircut that day in France. But it's true. Even though you're there, you know, in the heat of the moment you[don't] always hear it in a way that you'll remember it and put it together with everything else you have heard; and I often hear it in the moment in a way that makes me want to say, "But wait a minute, if that's true then what about this?" [Or], "You just said that; [that doesn't] match this." And that's my way of understanding it. But when I watch the show when it's all finished, I can see how each of the scientists work corresponds to the other, and the ways in which they [contrast] because they don't’ always agree. That's one of the pleasures of watching the show is you see different people with different research coming up with slightly different conclusions.

Steve: So you see the process of science.

Alda: Exactly, and that's very educational in itself, I think. I would love for people to benefit, and I think in my own personal life I benefit a little, from seeing the advantage of thinking in a way [that's] based on evidence: challenging the conclusions I have come up with and listening to other people who have got their own evidence and have come up with other conclusions. and challenging what I have come up with And I think that's very similar to the scientific process and I think I benefited in my life and I would like other people to; I think it's a really useful way to think.

Steve: We'll have more with Alan Alda in part two of our interview. In the meantime, I checked; the entire Human Spark episode one is indeed already available for viewing at All the episodes will be posted once they've had their run on broadcast TV. As great as it is to have them available, though, try to catch the episodes on the big screen as they are beautifully shot, and if you check your local listings you might still find episode one playing between now and the debut of episode two on January 13th. I know that here in New York it will be on various PBS affiliates a few more times before next Wednesday. Also, Alda spoke of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. We coincidentally have an article about that subject in the current issue of Scientific American MIND magazine. It's also available on our Web site, and I created a short URL for the piece: just go to We will have more with Alan Alda in part two of our podcast. Till then, get your science news needs met at where you'll find John Matson's Q&A of physicist Sean Carroll about his new book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, also at—for "time zigzags delightfully, eternally". Well actually, [that's] just [what] came out of the snipurl machine, but I figure there is a little way for you to remember it, maybe. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American. I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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