Alan Alda, host of the new PBS science series The Human Spark, talks to podcast host Steve Mirsky [pictured at left] about his experiences as a fictional physican, a real patient and an amateur scientist. Web sites related to this episode include www.pbs.org/humanspark
Welcome to part two of our special two-part interview with Alan Alda. His new science series, The Human Spark, airs on PBS stations over the next few weeks with episodes two and three debuting January 13th and January 20th. In this segment, we talk about Alda's experiences as a fictional surgeon, a real patient and an amateur scientist. Some of the other SciAm staffers sat in on the discussion. The two other voices you'll hear are our art director, Ed Bell, and news editor, Phil Yam.
Steve: You tell the story of how you got so sick in Chile.
Steve: And what happened there?
Alda: Yeah yeah. It's interesting. I think about this very often, almost, well everyday would be too much to say, but I think about it almost everyday. Six years ago, I was in Chile doing Scientific American Frontiers on top of a mountain. We were interviewing astronomers at an observatory on Cerro Tololo, just a few miles outside the town La Serena, which is not one of the biggest cities in the world, and I got this incredible cramp in my stomach and I didn't know what it was. I thought, maybe it was something I'd eaten a day before, but it got worse and worse. So I was waiting to go on to for the last interview of the 10th year of the show. So, we're going to be done with the whole thing in a few minutes. By the time, I went in there, I was doubled over with pain and we just barely go through it. If you look at that interview, I'm all green. So, now I'm on a bench, doubled over and they had a guy there, a medic, who I don't think had been called on to do too much in a medical way at all out there because he comes over, he sees me all cramped up, he says, "How do you feel?" I said, "Well, I'm really feeling bad." I had an obstructed intestine. So they put me in an ambulance. It was like, it looked like one of those ambulances we used on M.A.S.H., and it didn't really work very well. They had to bang on the motor to start it, and they took me a couple of hours down this bumpy road, to this very [tiny] ER in La Serena and the doctor leans in, and he says to me, "Okay, we've examined you, and here's what's happened. Some of your intestine has gone bad and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together, and I said, "Oh, you're going to do an end-to-end anastomosis." And he said, "How do you know that?" I said, "Oh! I did many of them on M.A.S.H.." And thank God, this doctor knew, he had been so well trained in Santiago and in Japan. He knew exactly what was wrong with me, cut me open, cut out the bad part and sewed the two good ends together, and well, the way the story ends—I lived.
Steve: It's the entropic principle.
Alda: Yes, yes. None of you would be here if I hadn't lived.
Steve: We knew that sure. Now you get home from Chile and when you were in Chile, you were trying to wrap your mind around the space-time continuum [and] the shape of space and…
Alda: Well, let's say, all through Chile I had been trying to ask everybody, "I can't picture the fourth dimension, how can I do that?" If I can't picture it, it's hard for me to believe that anybody can, and that you can't get anything out of the concept, so how can I picture [it]?" One of the astronomer said to me, "Why do you think that you're the only person on earth who can picture this?" although Einstein could picture it, couldn't he?"
Steve: You know, he was a practical joker. He said a lot of things.
Alda: [The astronomers used] to call him, I remember one interview [where] the astronomers kept referring to big Al. [I said,] "Who's big Al?"; [he said,] "It's Einstein, who do you think it is?"
Steve: You come back from Chile and you are recovering, can't really leave the house too much and you have this little adventure with [a] clock.
Alda: That's right, yeah, yeah. The clock was, it was [a] big grandfather's clock, and it wasn't keeping time, it kept losing five minutes, ten minutes, and I realized that [a] friend of mine [had] said, "It's the length of the pendulum that matters." So I extended the pendulum and it started keeping real time and I thought, "I've stuck my hand into gravity here." I can't picture the fourth dimension, but I just put my hand in it, and it was a wonderful experience for me, but then I probably would still have been under some of the anesthetic.
Steve: But, you know, you make me think of something that big Al said.
Steve: Which was that his best ideas did not come from his rational mind. And he was talking about creativity, not the virtue of...
Alda: Is it the quote about, imagination is more important than what, facts?
Steve: Than knowledge.
Alda: Knowledge, yeah.
Steve: Right, a separate but equal quote.
Steve: And so, even though maybe you still didn't feel like you were intellectually in control of this four-dimensional material maybe you felt it.
Alda: Yeah, but the thing, is I wouldn't want to cross a bridge built by somebody who felt it.
Steve: Absolutely, [and] we want Pi to remain 3.14159, etcetera. Yeah, I am definitely not encouraging people to abandon their rational intellectual existence.
Alda: No, but not to try to be stupidly funny, I do think I know what you mean, and [what] I do think I agree wholeheartedly about is that there [are] so many ways to try to get some grasp of understanding; and sometimes it's intuitive and sometimes it's not. Sometimes it has to do [with] putting your hands in it. There is a friend of mine who['s] a mathematician, Steve Strogart; [he] showed me a game where you have three knives—you [probably] know this—three glasses, three drinking glasses, and they [are] on the table like the points of a pyramid; and they are just slightly farther apart then the length of a knife, of one of the knives or any of the three knives you're given, and you have to balance, you have to put those knives on the glasses in such a way that you can balance another glass of water on top of the knives but the glasses are all slightly farther apart than the knives are long. Once I figured out how to do it—and I tell other people to try it—first they're totally stumped. And then I say something similar to what you just said. I say, "Think with your hands; just do it with your hands just keep moving them around until you find the way," and actually—no, I am not going to give the solution now for anybody listening, because it's really fun to get a challenge like this. Arrange the knives on the three glasses in such a way that it forms a firm platform in the middle, in the middle of where these three glasses are and you can balance a glass of water on top of it, and then they can get in touch with you for the solution.
Steve: [And] get in touch with his lawyer for the medical malpractice. Let me ask you one thing.
Steve: I have always thought that the rehearsal process is like a big experiment in theater; that you have a theory going in that you have to test, and that the theory is kind of the text of whatever is it you're playing, and you have to see if that actually works and sometimes it doesn't work.
Alda: I never thought of that; I think that's a very interesting idea. And I [don't know if I'd] call the text the theory so much as the—it might be a theory or a hypothesis. It's an experiment in a couple of ways, where people come in, actors come into and directors come into a rehearsal period with varying degrees of two elements, I would say. One is having thought about it and having an idea of how it's probably going to happen; and the other is having no idea of how it's going to happen and exploring. One is invention and the other is discovery, and I tend more toward discovery because I [was trained] in improvisation, and I love discovery because I can't consciously put things there [that are] as interesting as things that arise by themselves. Because I think there's more going on in the back[ground of] the brain than you can organize consciously. However, other people tend more toward invention or toward deciding how it's going to be and then seeing if they can get there, and along the way they discover, just as I along the way consciously try things out. But I think the rehearsal time is probably a time where those two approaches find each other and something new takes place, something you didn't expect. If you don't wind up with something you didn't expect, then you're doing something you've either seen before or done before, and it's not going to be very interesting. So it's experimental, partly to test out theories and partly to discover quite by accidents things that you had no idea you are going to come across. And that sounds a lot like science to me. Some of the greatest things as I understand they have come about by serendipity, the greatest discoveries.
Steve: When you find something you [weren't] looking for.
Alda: Yeah, you're looking for something else, in fact, very often. But that doesn't mean that both of those efforts aren't useful; that is on the one side, serendipity, but on the other side a very methodical, almost [plodding] approach where you [leave] nothing to the imagination, you just say, try this, now try that, and now try that. And that can be very useful and it can lead to the very creativity that you're hoping for on the other side.
Steve: I think about this a lot as a writer, and I know you've thought about it as a writer and also as a performer, as a director. How do you know when it's right? I mean, something clicks in your brain that says that's right, but what is that?
Alda: Yeah, I don't know. It's funny, I was wondering about that. I have a granddaughter who when she was about three or four loved art, and she worked for 20 minutes on a painting of some kind and she says, "It's done"; well, I say, "Well, don't you want to, like, use this part of the paper?" And she said, "No, no no! It's done." She was so definite about it, and I didn't know how she knew. And I don't know how I know, although I watch myself and I see myself, just never give up on drafts—when I write I do many, many drafts. I just finished the major part of a work on a plane and that was draft 24; now I’m on draft 25, but I am just really sweeping up in the corners, and I pretty much know it's done, and I don't know how I know, I just know.
Steve: Like why is, "from the Indies to the Andes [in] your undies" funnier then "from the Andes to the Indies in your undies"—this is in his book.
Alda: No one else will know what that means. That used to be an old radio joke: "I just wrote a book; what's the name of your book? From the Indies to the Andes [in] my undies" and…
Steve: And then you said you lived it…
Alda: And I lived it because when I was on my way back from Chile, my pant[s] started [falling] off on the airplane, and I was traveling from the Andes to the Indies in my undies, and it wasn't as funny as going from the Indies to the Andes, and I don't quite know why. But there's something about, you know, Neil Simon had that wonderful riff in one of his [plays], where, I think [it] was in The Sunshine Boys, and there is a long discussion about [how] words with K are funny.
Alda: Chicken is a funny [word], turkey is funny; bird is not funny.
Steve: Numbers, some numbers are funny
Steve: Some numbers aren't funny.
Alda: Yeah, that's right; what, 17—that's a funny number.
Steve: Seventeen is hilarious. Let me open up the floor: Does anybody have anything they would like to ask Mr. Alda?
Alda: Yeah, why don't you just correct me on everything I said wrong?
Ed Bell: That discussion you guys just had reminded me of a single line that Alan used on M.A.S.H. that just haunted me for, well to present day, I still think of this line. I am curious and I am going to have an opportunity to ask you now, [was] this written for you or it was ad-libbed? And you may not even remember that at all. But B. J. Honeycutt refers to some stuff that you've pilfered as "ill-gotten booty" and shortly thereafter you referred to it as "ill-booten gotty" and I could never get the phrase ill-booten gotty out of my head.
Alda: Isn't it, awful when a thing like that gets in your head?
Ed Bell: But every time I would think of it, it would make me laugh or giggle so, I know exactly what [you're talking about.]
Alda: I don't think I wrote that particular script. I think that might have been Larry Gelbart, but I don't really know, and now it's been so long. I used to be able to remember the shows that I was in but hadn't written or directed [then I reached] the point where I could only remember the ones I wrote and directed. Now I don't know anything; if I pass by it when I'm changing channels, I think…
Steve: Who is that guy?
Alda: Who is that guy, what is he talking about? I don't know who wrote it, and it is a terrible thing and this thing about, you know, when you write it lasts forever—not even in your own head.
Steve: Right, when did I know that?
Phil Yam: Do you have any other plans going forward about any science-related projects or what kind of questions would you like to explore and answer if you have an opportunity?
Alda: [You know,] it's interesting. I am so curious about all the work that scientists do, and I don't have any particular question that I want to answer, except the big questions. The biggest one to me is, who really are we? And how do we cope with one another? We all know how to do that. [We have this] amazing ability to destroy one another, and we are really good at that, and to destroy the environment. But we don't know how to cope with one another's behavior or differing opinions or differing beliefs? And we are willing to back up that lack of understanding with weapons of destruction. And that seems like a pretty good thing to work on for the next few years. When I am at a dinner table I love to ask everybody, "How long do you think our species might last?" I've read that the average age of a species, of any species, is about two million years. Is it possible we can have an average life span as a species? And do you picture us two million years more or a million and a half years, or 5,000? And what is the figure?
Steve: I have Thursday in the pool.
Alda: I just had that pencilled in myself.
Steve: Alan Alda, thank you very much.
Alda: Thank you, thanks very much, thanks for having me.
Steve: Don't miss Alan Alda's PBS science series, The Human Spark on your local PBS affiliates, January 13th and 20th, and check for rebroadcast of all three episodes. Here in New York they are on at all hours on three or four different stations, so as they say, check your local listings. You can also watch them online at PBS.org/humanspark.
Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: In addition to playing Dr. [Hawkeye] Pierce on M.A.S.H., Alan Alda has portrayed real-life Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli and real-life HIV researcher Luc Montagnier.
Story number 2: In what's called virtual gold farming, hundreds of thousands of people play online games all day to accumulate goods in the game[s] that they then sell to other gamer[s] for real money.
Story number 3: Computers can beat the pants off people at chess, but even nonexpert people are better at identifying styles of art than computers are.
And story number 4: Burning tobacco might wind up being a good thing because researchers say that with some genetic modifications, tobacco could be an excellent bio-fuel.
Story 4 is true. Tobacco does have a lot of promise as bio-fuel. That's according to a paper in the Plant Biotechnology Journal. Tobacco has been overlooked because it already has such a large economic value; tobacco seeds contain a lot of oil. If researchers can modify the plants to coax them to produce substantial amounts of oil in the leaves where the stored energy could be released easily by burning, you might turn a killer into a keeper.
Story 3 is true. People have an easier time identifying art than computers do. That is according to a work published in the journal Computers and Graphics. People were asked to categorize hundreds of paintings into styles such as baroque or surreal and the people did weigh [in] better than the machines. Computer algorithms judge the art by obvious and quantifiable parameters such as the way the paint was laid on the canvas or the color composition. We ask questions such as, Who is in this image? And, What emotions are being portrayed in the scene? Computers still don't have that kind of talent.
And story 2 is true. Researchers say that there are probably about 400,000 virtual gold farmers in Asia alone, where most gold farming takes place. They play games such as World of Warcraft all day, accumulate goods in the game, then sell the goods to lazy or less-skilled or too-busy-to-play-all-day players elsewhere in the world, like here in the U.S., for real money. The going rate in World of Warcraft right now is $10 of real money for 1,000 gold units, which is coincidentally about the same as the dollar to yen ratio. For more, check out the article in the January issue of Scientific American magazine called "Real Money from Virtual Worlds," also available on our Web site, and I will be talking with Editor in Chief Mariette Di Christina about virtual gold farming on the next episode of the podcast.
All of which means that story 1 about Alan Alda playing Pauli and Montagnier is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS, but what is true is that Alan Alda took on the role of Nobel physicist Richard Feynman in the play QED on Broadway and he was a real-life HIV researcher Robert Gallo in the HBO movie And the Band Played On, based on the book by Randy Schultz.
Steve: Well, that's it for this week. Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette Di Christina joins me in the next episode to talk about the entire January issue of the magazine, in addition to the gold farming article, which is available online right now. The whole issue, so check it out especially whether there may be life not only on other planets but in other universes; that's all at www.ScientificAmerican.com, which also features the latest science news, blogs, videos and slide shows, and if you follow us on Twitter as @SciAm, you'll get a tweet anytime a new contact is posted to the site. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American. I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks again to Alan Alda, and thank you for clicking on us.