close menu

Secret Science Nerds: Alan Alda’s Clinical Approach to Science Communication

When you hear the name Alan Alda, you probably immediately think of his Emmy and Golden Globe-winning roles in M*A*S*H and The West Wing. There’s a good chance you might know his more recent work from the small screen, such as Horace and PeteThe Blacklist and The Big C, or the big screen, such as an Oscar-nominated turn in The Aviator and roles in 2015’s The Longest Ride and Bridge of Spies. We bring up Alda’s name today to talk not of his acting accomplishments, but rather his contributions to both mathematics and the sciences. His efforts make Alda the latest of our Secret Science Nerds.

Throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, Alda starred as Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on M*A*S*H, playing the chief surgeon of the “4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital” during the Korean War. That medical experience, fictional though it may have been, came in handy while Alda traveled the world as host of Scientific American Frontiers during the show’s run from 1993 to 2007. In his 2005 memoir Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: and Other Things I’ve Learned, Alda recounted a time when he surprised a young doctor in Chile with his knowledge of medical procedures.

After nearly 15 years immersed in the world of cutting-edge scientific achievements, Alda continued the pursuit of his scientific interests in a variety of fields and through numerous organizations. He was part of a team of scientists and celebrities who participated in the BBC’s coverage of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN during its operational launch in the fall of 2008. Alda was paired up with his pal Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist and author, who shared a fascination with the search for the fundamental particles of nature. (As a sidenote, Alda also designed a t-shirt to raise awareness for the facility’s ATLAS Experiment.)

Since 2008, Alda and Greene have teamed up to present the annual World Science Festival in New York City; Alda remains a member of the organization’s board of directors. Alda is also on the scientific advisory board for the Future of Life Institute, alongside such notable names as Morgan Freeman, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk, to name but a few. The organization’s mission is to “catalyze and support research and initiatives for safeguarding life and developing optimistic visions of the future, including positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges.”

In 2009, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University was established within Stony Brook’s School of Journalism with Alda as a founding board member; it was renamed after Alda in 2013. Their mission is to “enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline.”

Returning to PBS to host the series The Human Spark in 2010, Alda won the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Kavli Science of Journalism Award for his work on the show, alongside Graham Chedd, Larry Engel, and Jared Lipworth. In 2012, however, Alda wanted to hand out an award of his own. His childhood curiosity about the nature of flames and fire led him to develop the Flame Challenge. The annual event, which grew out of a World Science Festival program in 2012, tasks science communicators and educators to come up with a concise and entertaining explanation of flame that an 11-year-old could understand. No easy feat. And 2017’s question “What Is Energy?” aims to be just as challenging.

Alda has won a slew of other awards, including the National Science Board’s “Public Service Award,” the Scientific American “Lifetime Achievement Award,” and the American Chemical Society Award for “Public Service.” In 2013, he won the James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry, sponsored by the American Chemical Society. The following year, Alda was named an honorary fellow for the Society of Technical Communication, all while continuing to advance the communication of science.

2015 saw Alda on the panel of judges for Dartmouth’s annual Math-O-Vision competition, a contest for “high school student filmmakers celebrating creativity and math.” And just this year, Alda received the National Academy of Sciences’ most prestigious award, the Public Welfare Medal, in recognition of his “extraordinary application of the skills honed as an actor to communicating science on television and stage, and by teaching scientists innovative techniques that allow them to tell their stories to the public.” He was also honored at this year’s World Science Festival gala for both his cinematic achievements and his scientific dedication. Alda’s continued efforts in both arenas clearly grants him status as one of our Secret Science Nerds.

Now that you know Alan Alda has a science side that might just surpass his cinematic side, who else would you like us to profile in a future Secret Science Nerds article? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Images: NBC, Alan Alda



Animation Investigation

Animation Investigation : The 11 Most Disturbing Kids…

THE GOOD PLACE's Simone Isn't Human

THE GOOD PLACE's Simone Isn't Human