M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye coming to Edmonton

Beloved actor will regale audience with stories about his other passion: science.


The actor best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the famous hit television show M*A*S*H is coming to Edmonton to talk about his other great passion in life: communicating science.

The six-time Emmy award-winning actor, writer and director Alan Alda will give a lighthearted, entertaining talk about his passion for science and the art of communicating it—something for which he is eminently qualified.

Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers, a science show on PBS, from 1993 to 2005, where he had simple, open-ended exchanges with scientists.

“I never knew the questions I was going to ask. I was always prompted by my curiosity about what they were actually saying to me. And if I didn’t understand it, I bothered them until I did,” he said in a telephone interview from his New York City office.

The result was that he and his team found a way to bring out the scientists’ humanity as well as an accurate picture of their work that was accessible to a lay audience.

The success of the format prompted Alda to think about ways in which communicating science to a general audience could be taught. If unscripted, open-ended exchanges with scientists could lead them to communicate their work more effectively, he wondered, could learning improvisational techniques help them reach the same goal? To find out, Alda did what any good scientist does: he conducted an experiment.

He met with a class of 20 engineering students at USC and asked each of them to give a two-minute talk about their work. He then led them through a three-hour improvisational class and the students gave their talk again.

“The difference was amazing. Everybody in the room was shocked—including me—because that quick, three-hour improv really made a difference to most people,” Alda said.

That clinched it. Alda and a team of collaborators devised a curriculum with improvisational techniques as the basis for studying other ways for improving the communication of science by scientists and, in 2009, founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at the Stony Brook University in New York.

Since then, the centre has worked with more than 7,000 scientists and medical professionals.

“We found that even senior scientists were grateful for the chance to do it,” said Alda. “Not just because it helped them talk to the public but because it helped them talk to other scientists and their collaborations got better. That came as a surprise.”

Alda will share many other stories—some funny, some eye-opening—of what he’s learned about helping scientists communicate their work this Thursday, Oct. 6, in Hall D of the Shaw Conference Centre, when he presents “Getting Beyond a Blind Date With Science.” Contact the Department of Medicine for tickets and more information.