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Alan Alda Has the Zest of Curiosity

He's come a long way from being Hawkeye—and even he can hardly wait to see what he'll come up with next.

AS AN ACTOR, DIRECTOR, AUTHOR, AND PLAYWRIGHT, Alan Alda has contributed richly to our artistic culture. Rather than rest on his laurels, Alda, now in his early 70s, has continued to challenge himself. In 2004 he was nominated for an Academy Award (for The Aviator), won an Emmy (for West Wing), and saw his first memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, hit the bestseller list. 

On another track altogether, not long after his landmark series M*A*S*H ended in 1983, Alda jumped at the chance to explore his lifelong interest in science as host of PBS's Scientific American Frontiers. Over 11 years, his enthusiasm for science influenced millions of TV viewers, and earned him the National Science Board's Public Service award in 2006. He serves on the board of the World Science Festival. His new PBS science show, The Human Spark, airs in fall 2009.

Not surprisingly, Alda considers himself to be a lifelong learner. "I'm always trying to learn," he tells NRTA Live & Learn. "When I'm in an elevator, I look at the panel of buttons, or the lighting, and try to figure out how it got that way. Who installed it? What were the problems? Why isn't it designed some other way? It's a little crazy, but it makes elevator rides more interesting."

In his book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, Alda describes how he encouraged his daughter Elizabeth's graduating class to be lifelong learners. "I know people who are growing in their sixties," he told the graduates. "Be supple. Be loose. Life is one surprise after another." 

His Lifelong Learning Curve. "I try not to coast," he says. "If it doesn't sound like it's going to be hard, I'm not that interested in doing it. As an actor, some of my best work has been in parts where I didn't have any idea how I was going to play this person who was so different from me. Hawkeye in M*A*S*H was an example of that. Even after ten days' rehearsal I still didn't know how I was going to be him—right up to the moment when I stepped out of the operating room for the first shot. They called action and I opened the door and walked across the compound.  About halfway across, I just reached out and grabbed a nurse and hugged her.  "'Oh, look,' I thought. 'I'm Hawkeye.'"

Over the years, Alda has continually struggled to bridge the divide C.P. Snow describes as existing between the culture of science and the culture of art. As a boy, Alda loved science. But in high school, he says, "I was in a trigonometry class for 45 minutes and fled for my life. I wish I had been lucky enough to meet someone who would show me it could be fun."

Why Science Can Be Fun. "One of the things I love about science is that it's a great detective story, complete with a lot of wrong turns and blind alleys," says Alda. "Those wrong turns are exactly what make the story of science a human one. And they're often left out when science is taught or reported on. Telling the story in human terms and still keeping it rigorously accurate can extend the reach of science to people who possibly didn't realize they'd be fascinated by it."

Teachers of science need to be able to present information in ways that evoke the human, he says, because "Kids need to know that scientists are people like them—that it's not impossible that they themselves could grow up to be scientists. And we all need to get used to the idea that science, like the rest of life, is filled with uncertainty.  In a way, it thrives on uncertainty. Many, many things are known for sure by scientists, but every time they discover something new it raises a hundred new questions. That's exciting, but until we get used to the process, we're liable to think these guys just can't make up their minds."

Questions, Full of Questions. Curiosity seems to be at the core of Alda's lifetime of learning. Asking questions stimulates learning, he says. "It forces me to realize that what I thought I knew isn't necessarily the basis of what other people know. Instead of spinning around on what I thought I knew, I find that asking questions—of the most embarrassingly basic kind—opens doors to ideas I really had no awareness of."

One of the most memorable of the hundreds of scientists he interviewed for Scientific American Frontiers, he says, was "the guy who developed a whole new way of thinking about evolution by studying the shells of animals from the sea that had been attacked by predators. The ones who escaped because the predator couldn't drill all the way through their shells survived and became a turning point in the evolution of their species. And the added wonder of meeting this man was that he did all these studies in spite of the fact that he had been blind since he was 20 years old."


Another question—What makes life meaningful?— is the basis for Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.  Does he have a quick answer?  "I don't have a quick answer, except that I notice that I notice more. I think I began to see that it doesn't matter what your life means if you don't notice it happening."

This summer Alda has been filming The Human Spark, his new PBS series that asks another question, What is the nature of human uniqueness? "I met a fascinating bunch of scientists," he says, "even though they agree a lot with regard to what makes us human, they have a wide range of opinions on how we got this way. Some say it's because we're flexible and inventive, some because we're so good at socialization, and one said it's because we could run so well (that takes some explaining)."

In the course of the filming, he had his head examined. What was that like?

"Very annoying. I've had about a dozen MRIs during the eleven years of Scientific American Frontiers, and none of them were unpleasant. But I finally reached a moment during this one where I panicked. You're in a very narrow tube and if you start to think about the similarities between the tube and a coffin, you become very interested in getting out of it."

Could transcranial stimulation, which he explores in The Human Spark, be used to enhance lifelong learners in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond?

"I certainly hope so," he says.

You might think that working on Scientific American Frontiers and The Human Spark, writing about Albert Einstein, and playing physicist Richard Feynman would be like Alda's sending himself to graduate school. But he says, "I don't think so. All I've done is ask smart people a lot of questions. I think in graduate school they don't let you out until you can answer their questions."

As a playwright and as an actor, Alda has bridged that gap between art and science by humanizing two of the towering geniuses of science—Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. "Acting in the play QED and writing Dear Albert brought the personal and the public lives of these people together," he says. "It was very exciting for me."

Alda developed an intense relationship with Einstein, the man he calls "Big Al," while writing his play, Dear Albert, which is based on the letters written by Albert Einstein, his wives and his friends. This correspondence is both intimate and surprising.

How Physicists Flirt. "I had a wonderful time writing about Einstein," Alda notes. "He was a complicated person and that made for interesting drama. It's startling that as far out into the universe as he could see, he was a little blind to the people right next to him. He went from passionately loving Mileva, his first wife, to treating her very badly. Although she, too was a physicist, I think it's generally agreed that she didn't contribute to the theory of relativity beyond acting as a sounding board and sometimes checking his math for him. But in the beginning, it excited him that they could talk physics together. It was a whole new way of flirting."

Alda played the physicist Richard Feynman on Broadway in Peter Parnell's play QED. He also helped to conceive the project because of his fascination with Feynman, whose pioneering work was in the world of quantum physics—based on quantum theory, which was proposed a century ago to better explain the mind-bending behavior of the smallest constituents of the universe. Alda became so knowledgeable about the physicist that he participated in a discussion of Feynman's life and work at the 2008 World Science Festival in New York with astronomer Vera Rubin and physicists Pierre Hohenberg and Stephon Alexander.

"Feynman is kind of an intellectual hero of mine, mainly because of his determination not to fool anyone, especially himself," Alda says. "He was always the first person to attack his own ideas. I had to work hard at getting an understanding of quantum mechanics, which is still only a rough grasp because I don't have the math, but I loved the idea that Feynman and others could see into what is for the rest of us an invisible world. Feynman never left behind a famous formula, like E=MC2, but he did come up with drawings that describe particle interactions that are still used by physicists. I think one of his greatest contributions, though, was his way of thinking. It was rational and honest and inspired many people, in and out of science."

Quantum physics underlies much of the technology that has revolutionized modern life. "Our world runs on quantum mechanics," Alda points out. "I was once interviewing a scientist and I said, 'Is it true that maybe 60 percent of our modern life is rooted in quantum physics?'  He said, 'No. It's more like 90 or 95 percent.' Satellites and computers would have a hard time existing without it."


To Be Avoided, Yes, But Not To Be Missed. Alda learned other life lessons from Feynman's approach. In the "Afterword" to the paperback edition of Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, Alda mentions that Feynman chose not to take pain relieving drugs in the last days of his life. "Feynman was so curious about experiencing everything that life brought him, he didn't even want to be under anesthesia when he was dying. If he was dying he wanted to be there when it happened."

In the course of his scientific explorations, Alda has survived a number of death-defying moves. He confronted sharks, climbed Mount Vesuvius, and almost fell into a boiling spring at Yellowstone Park. He was a passenger in a robot driven car as it traveled 35 mph toward a brick wall. (Fortunately, the car was programmed to stop before impact.) But, he says, these are not the greatest challenges he has faced.

"The biggest risk I take is when I sit down to write something," he said. "Or pick up a script and wonder if I'll be able to play the character. Life has these wonderful little frozen moments of fear and it's always a pleasure to hear the ice start to crack."

Jane Ciabattari is the author of Stealing the Fire: Stories (Canio's Editions) and often writes about literature and popular culture.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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