Alan Alda – Keeping His Hawk-Eye on Communicating Science

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Alan Alda in Australia at the National Press Club in Canberra

In the past science was in the forefront of the public’s eye and interest, however, disappointingly this has changed especially since the 1950’s. American actor, author, director, screenwriter, and science enthusiast Alan Alda is on a mission to successfully alter this perception through his passionate rhetoric.

Co-founding the World Science Festival in New York and campaigning for the inclusion of communication courses in both under graduate and post graduate university studies, as well as writing plays about scientific giants like Albert Einstein and hosting the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, are just some of the ongoing activities he’s engaged with.

It was inspirational to discover Doctor ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce from the smash hit comedy M*A*S*H and Presidential Candidate Senator Vinick in West Wing is also a celebrated and charismatic speaker. At eighty years of age his robust presence and mesmerizing address at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia’s National Capital, was entertaining, informative and thought-provoking.

Brainy ManHis dynamic wit, perfect timing, warm manner and humorous stories charmed the audience.

His natural ambiance and compelling delivery free of notes or cue cards left the audience awash with admiration and respect.

He is deeply committed to promoting science communication that is honest vivid and clear.

Encouraging scientists to reveal their own personalities and share their stories whilst delivering scientific information is a key in the communication training for emerging scientists.

He was also visiting Australia to formalise a partnership between the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science, based at New York’s Stony Brook University, and the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. The partnership with ANU fosters exchanges of staff, students and research between the two institutions.

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Actor and science advocate Alan Alda speaks with Assistant Minister for Science Karen Andrews and Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt after his address to the National Press Club of Australia. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

He elaborated “when we started it was hard even to get people in our own university to put time aside for communication training of their own students.

Now you can’t graduate from some disciplines unless you take these communication courses, and universities and medical schools around the country are breaking down our doors trying to affiliate with us.”

alda, alanPart of the courses involves improvisation classes.

This strategy supports scientists in preparing for how they will present their scientific message and how to relate to audiences.

These communication courses also help scientists to connect, converse and collaborate more effectively with colleagues in their own scientific disciplines.

In addition scientists across the world are invited to participate in Flame Challenge.

Flame Challenge is an international competition where scientist’s answers to questions are appropriate for eleven year olds to understand.

To validate this outcome entries are judged by 5th and 6th grade children around the world.

What is Sound? This is the question that the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University is challenging scientists to answer in written, video or graphic form for the ‘Flame Challenge’ for 2016.

Alda is a persuasive spokesperson for communicating authentic scientific information to the public and he strongly believes this information should not be dumbed down.

He wants the public to get excited about science. Where scientific concepts and jargon are too esoteric he believes journalists have a responsibility to incite interest and open doors to stimulate further investigation by those people curious to learn more.

It’s very important to celebrate scientific achievements and to be aware of the daunting scientific problems facing mankind today and in the future.

Issues such as vaccination, water availability, and environmental degradation need to be communicated with truth and not as propaganda for those with vested interests.

His eloquent dedication to influencing the public to be as proud of scientific heroes as sports and movie stars was infectious.

This important twenty first century direction needs more consistent powerful voicing.

“I’m telling you it’s contagious. It’s a great thing to see a really good brain at work solving problems. It’s one of the wonders of nature to me” said Alan Alda.

World Science Festival Brisbane 2016Recently Brisbane hosted the World Science Festival where some of the greatest contemporary minds in science and the arts attended.

This celebration of science, the arts and the performing arts was a coup for Brisbane.

It was the first time the World Science Festival had been held outside of New York.

At the World Science Festival in Brisbane Alan Alda presented a play, Dear Albert, based on letters written by Albert Einstein to significant women he was romantically involved with.

Alan Alda was inviting the audience into the life of Einstein as a foray into exploring his obsession with understanding the universe.

WSF7He believes it’s important to acknowledge human flaws as this helps to understand the whole person and famous scientists like us all are not without their faults.

Also this helps in communication where the science advocate allows the public to see the real person.

He used the analogy that art and science are long-lost lovers yearning to be reunited.

His practical application of using his playwriting skills to communicate scientific objectives is an example of this union.

We all ought to be heeding, reading, absorbing and valuing scientific information.

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Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt, Alan Alda and US Ambassador to Australia John Berry open the new CPAS facilities. Image Stuart Hay, ANU

Alan Alda’s message is clear “science is a beautiful fascinating detective story.” We all need to be listening to the story.

Rose Niland, Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

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