December 1, 2011 | 2
I grew up watching M*A*S*H reruns with my dad, so even early in life, Alan Alda, who played Dr. Hawkeye Pierce throughout the show’s eleven seasons, was a familiar name and face. You might also recognize him from TV shows like The West Wing or movies like Murder at 1600.
You might also not know that Alda has a love of science. For ten years, he was the host of a TV series that emerged from a partnership between PBS and Scientific American, called Scientific American Frontiers.
Most recently, Alda combined his loves of theater and science in the form of a new play that premiered in November at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse. The play (which was fantastic), which is called Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, runs through December 18, and stars Anna Gunn (from Breaking Bad) as Marie, and John de Lancie (from Star Trek) as Pierre.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Alan. We discussed the play and Marie, sure, but also science, science education, science communication, theater, storytelling, and lots more. Enjoy the following excerpts from our interview. Some of the questions have been re-ordered to construct a more coherent narrative and slightly reworded to make more sense. The answers themselves are unedited, except where indicated for clarity:
What brought you to this story in the first place?
Just reading about [Marie], it’s a real dramatic story. And it shows the development of a strong person to an even stronger person, who would not let anything stop her. And everything was working against her.
Were you looking for a story to tell that had science as a component?
I wrote about this woman because she has such a dramatic story and I was led to her partly because I’m very interested in science, so that’s what I tend to read about. I’m not trying to teach a science lesson. I do hope that people, through the human story that’s very compelling, will see this great scientist and fellow person and warm up to her and be more willing to know more about what she did – not just the story that she lived through.
Did you have to do a lot of scientific research to understand the background and context?
I did, because it was hard to understand how she functioned with the machinery that she used to study radiation. It wasn’t that easy to understand – I don’t think people use that machinery anymore. Not in the way she used it… I visited her lab in Paris, except they cleaned it up a lot. I was shown the page from her notebook from the day she discovered radium, and they held a Geiger counter up to it and it started clicking.
Having read the script, I believe that this play is a form of science communication. Is that something you intended to do from the beginning?
Well, I always wanted to have some science in there – as much as I could get in and still keep it dramatic. I try not to have any science that isn’t essential to the drama, just as I wouldn’t stop the play to do a song.
I found when I did QED, about Richard Feynman, that the audience really could stay interested through quite a bit of real science talk. Partly because Feynman was such a good talker. But [in Radiance], the way [the characters] fall in love is how they talk science to each other. So it’s a scene, its not just talking science.
What brought you to science in the first place?
It just fascinates me. Over the last 50 years, I think I’ve read almost every article in almost every issue of Scientific American. You’d think, after that, I’d know more than I do. But I’m really curious, and I love to watch smart people’s brains work. It’s very entertaining to me.
When I did the show Scientific American Frontiers, one of the happiest experiences for me was to talk to really smart people and hear how they got conclusions about very big things from very little data. And they could rely on it because they were very precise about how they measured and how they analyzed [the data]. They have great imaginations, and they have a good sense of humor, so I really had fun with them.
The word imagination seems to come up a lot when talking about scientists, even though you never really hear about it in science classes. It seems like imagination is something that scientists and artists share.
Yeah. They probably go about it in different ways, but art is rigorous just as science is. A painter doesn’t just use any color. A writer doesn’t use just any word. Mark Twain said the difference between a word and the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. And that’s the kind of rigor. They go through the same painstaking process, but probably go about it differently, with different tools. It’s not only rigor, but they have to be creative and they have to be imaginative. One of the things I think [scientists] have to imagine is all the ways in which you might be wrong about what you think you’ve observed. That takes a lot of imagination, and it takes a lot of knowledge and memory too, I suppose.
In writing these plays, is that something you try to work into the stories?
I think so, to the extent that I can express what I think I understand is the feeling of scientists toward the wonder of their work and the deep pleasure it gives. The poetry of the universe. I’d like to try to express that.
Do you think people notice that?
I think so. You know, the thing is, an example of a scientist who was passionate about science is a woman I met and interviewed a few years ago, who was studying one particular kind of spider in the southwest. And she went out every night and slept on a lava bed for seven years so she could be there in the morning when the spider woke up. I don’t think she did that because she felt it was eating her broccoli. I thought she did it because she loved it. She was passionate about it. The joy of science, I think, is something that I’ve seen in other people and I’d like people who don’t think about science much to experience that.
Is theater an effective way to communicate that?
Yes, because in theater you get a chance to empathize with the characters. You get to, in a way, stand in their place for a while. And you can feel what they feel. Happiness, pain. And it gives you a chance to see the world through their eyes a little bit. And that, by the way, is what I’m after in writing a play – that human sympathy. I’m not at all interested in lecturing anybody, and I attack my own work if I think I am, in the same way that a scientist might try to figure out why his hypothesis is wrong. I work very hard to try to make it a human experience. [Scientists] are already human – you just have to see them that way, and not see them according to a stereotype.
A lot of people have this stereotype of the scientist as an old white man with a beard and a labcoat.
Humorless and unemotional, distant.
So the story of Marie already lends itself to breaking down those stereotypes.
It’s true. She had a very interesting life, you could do three or four different plays or movies based on different parts of her life.
What is it about her story that drew you?
What drew me to her was that it was such a dramatic story. What kept me working on it was that the more I learned about her, the more she became my hero. And she gave me strength when things would be hard, and I’d be up against an obstacle. I’d remember the obstacles she was against and they didn’t defeat her, and it would really give me strength. It still does.
She seems like such a different character from Richard Feynman.
One of the things I admired most about him was that he wouldn’t fool himself, he wouldn’t let anybody else fool him, and he wouldn’t fool anybody else. He was really serious about not kidding himself. And that’s such an admirable trait I think. By the way, both he and Marie did things in their lives they might’ve wished they didn’t. They’re very human in that regard. Neither of these [plays] were nominating them for sainthood, but to see them as people like us. Only really really smart and really dedicated, unwilling to give up. That’s really a character that I think is worth looking into.
As far as I can tell, there aren’t many opportunities in theater to tell a story in which science is such a big part, and you’ve been a part of two so far.
There aren’t many plays written that touch on science. Even the play about mathematicians, Proof, which Dan Sullivan directed on Broadway, has almost no reference to math in it. They could be talking about a manuscript that was literary rather than mathematical.
Why do you think there aren’t more plays with science content?
I think it’s the stereotype about science and scientists, that its bloodless and overly intellectual. Its too easy for people to say, “oh, I don’t know anything about that,” and to steer clear. That enables them to miss some great pleasures.
It almost seems like, at least in this country, people aren’t embarrassed to admit they don’t know anything about science.
But they wouldn’t say, “Shakespeare, what’s that?” That was the point that C.P. Snow made over fifty years ago in the lecture about the two cultures and to some extent its still true. But I think its not as true as it was then. In this company of actors there are two or three people who are very curious about science and love to bring in stories from the newspaper and discuss them, and that’s very nice.
Should there be more of this kind of thing in theater?
People should write about what interests them, what excites them.
Was Scientific American Frontiers your first science communication effort?
Yeah, I think so. I’d been interested in science, and reading about it for a long time, which is why, when they asked me if I’d be interested in hosting it, I said I’d only be interested if I could actually talk to the scientists on camera and meet them and learn about their work, rather than just read a narration off-camera. So they took a chance when they agreed to that. And it turned out to be an unusual way to do science on television.
What do you mean unusual?
These conversations I had were totally unscripted. I didn’t go in with a list of questions. I didn’t know what I was going to ask them and I didn’t know what they were going to say to me. And as a result, I think the scientists were much more engaged in the conversation than they would’ve been if they were just running down a routine. And they weren’t allowed to lecture me, they had to really talk with me, have a conversation – which brought out the “real them,” and the whole thing got a lot more warm and communicative.
Why do you think it is scientists sometimes have those two sorts of personalities: the “expert” and then the “real them?”
Nobody would want a scientist to convince anybody else that his science is correct because he has a nice personality – so there’s a great deal of attention on the evidence and the evidence alone. The personality, the warmth of the person, isn’t called into play and shouldn’t be, when you’re evaluating the evidence.
But when you’re communicating about the work, I don’t see any reason why you can’t be personal and show the human side of yourself. Let your passion come out. And still be accurate – not to dumb it down, but to go for clarity and vividness. I helped to start a Center for Communicating Science in Stony Brook. We teach [graduate students] improvising, which really makes a difference, and we work on writing techniques to improve on clarity.
So theater can communicate science, but you’re also using it to help scientists communicate science.
A dream of mine is that scientists will eventually take it as a matter of course that they study the skills for communication along with their science education – that it becomes part of their science education.
I think the it already is [the job of scientists to communicate their science], for instance, they have to communicate with policymakers and funders to get funding. And to do that, they have to be able to be intelligible to the people they’re talking to. They have to communicate to one another, and when they teach their students, and when they communicate with colleagues who aren’t in exactly their field or their lab, they have to be able to use language that crosses fields. And they have to be able to explain to their mothers what they do for a living. There are a lot of ways scientists are already engaged in communicating, and it can only help science for them to communicate better. My hope is to be able to be of some help in that process, and not get in the way of the science – not take any time away from their science education, but in fact maybe to increase the efficiency of the system.
I’ve seen improvement – one of the things that is very important to me is that we evaluate that in a rigorous way. I don’t want us to make claims that this is helpful unless we can show it’s helpful. And I also want to be able to refine it so we have best practices, so we know what works best. One of the things we found was that if we teach the improvising before we work on writing, the writing goes better. It would be interesting to find out why and if that’s really true.
Do you have any ideas about that might be?
Let me go back and clear up a little about what I think improvising is. Improvising is not making things up. It’s connecting to the other player. And when that connection occurs, things come out of you that you didn’t expect. And it looks like you’re making things up, but that’s not really what’s happening. It’s the connection that’s important and through that connection – and by connection I mean looking, listening, making various kinds of contact – so that when they talk to the audience, they apply that ability to connect that they’ve learned with other players. They apply it to the audience, and they start to really talk to the audience in an intimate way.
That process can also change the way you talk when you hold the pen in your hand or you hit the keys of the keyboard. The understanding that somebody’s listening to you – that an actual person is listening to you – can change the way you speak to them, even through your fingers on the keyboard. And another thing it does is it gets you used to saying something more than one way. You can talk about your work in more than one way. And that helps the listener triangulate a little bit to understand what you’re talking about.
It sounds a lot like the way bloggers talk about blogging. One of the arguments for why blogging can be so effective is because you’re connecting to the audience in an informal way, and by using videos, podcasts, writing, video games, and so on – different ways to connect with a reader.
Yeah, I think it’s a little bit like the tired image of the blindfolded guys with the elephant. The more angles you can come at it, the more information you’ll get back, and the more three-dimensional a picture you’ll get back, I think.
I mean, it seems to be a common experience – if somebody says something you don’t understand and you ask them what they mean by it, if they say the exact same thing three more times, its much less likely that you’ll understand it than if they tell it to you three different ways, or maybe just one other way.
It’s not that you have a preferred way of hearing it, I think the more you hear about it from different angles, the more of a grasp you have on it.
Is that something you kept in mind when writing this play?
Sure. There’s times I want to make clear what Marie is known for and I don’t just want to just do a flat-footed statement of it, so I come at it from different angles. And by the time you’re done, I hope you have a feel for it. And a greater understanding of it. But I would try to come in from different directions.
That seems something that theater can do easily – it’s built into the form, almost. Is that true?
Everything in the theater has to go through the filter of action. And some things don’t naturally take that form.
Lets say you were going to explain Mendeleev’s table to me. You could just sit and talk about it for fifteen minutes in real life. If we were in a play, you have to have a reason for telling me. And you have to be trying to accomplish something by telling me. And I have to be accomplishing something by understanding it. And unless that’s happening, it’s not a play.
So it’s about the introduction of narrative?
I always have made a distinction between narrative storytelling and dramatic storytelling. The difference for me is that, when you tell a narrative story, essentially you’re saying: this happened, and then that happened, and then that happened. When you’re telling a dramatic story, you’re saying: this person did this which made that person do that. See how much more active and personal that is?
There was a famous writer who said you could say, “the king died and then the queen died,” but that it’s a story if you say, “the king died and then the queen died of grief.” But it’s not a play.
What makes it a play?
“The queen died of grief because she was trying to bring him back to life.” Or, “she was trying to live without him.” The king dies. It has some effect on the queen. What does that make her do? That’s the play. And if she dies in the process, that’s a tragedy. And in a comedy, you get what you want. You’ve gotta want something in a play. In a comedy you get what you want; in a tragedy you get what you deserve.
So motivation, emotion…
And “doing.” Action. That’s why its called action, that’s why its called acting. Because you are performing an action. You’re doing something, accomplishing something. Every moment that you’re alive you try to accomplish something. Drama takes particular note of that.
And it’s not easy to do. Just because I understand everything I just said doesn’t mean I’m always successful at it. But that’s what I’ve tried to apply to Marie’s life, and her life is full of events.
It makes me wonder how much did you have to infer and fill in the blanks.
A lot. There are many scenes where I know what happened but I don’t know what they said to eachother. And I’ve had an interesting, fun time imagining how those moments went between them.
Is this historical fiction, then?
It’s not a biography. It’s a theatrical portrait of Marie. It’s how I see her. I hope people will be interested enough to learn more about it, and maybe they’ll see her in a different way. Maybe the people who’ve already written some of the wonderful biographies about her won’t see her the way I see her, and that’s okay. This is not supposed to be a historical or biographical drama. This is about a person who did actually live, but the way I imagine that she lived.
You’re telling a story about this woman the way you imagine she may have been and the way that is relevant to you. Do you think people will have that motivation to go out and learn more?
I think people will. I hope they do. Because its fascinating and instructive to read about her. And I tried to stick to the facts as much as I could. I tried to be as accurate about the science as I could. I only have two hours to tell the story, so I’ve gotta find ways to condense it.
To what extent is it the responsibility of a screenwriter or a playwright or movie director to stay true to science and to what extent is it their job to tell a compelling story?
It’s a complicated question. Its hard to stick to the facts, whatever the facts are, whenever you’re writing a story, whether its science or if you’re writing about a business deal, or the banking industry. It’s very hard to get all the facts straight and still tell an interesting story that moves. But I’ve always found it’s more interesting if you try to stick to the facts, and you have the imagination to move around among the facts so that the facts aren’t betrayed.
On M*A*S*H we used to be as careful as we could about the surgery, for instance. There was one [consultant], Walter Dishell, who was a doctor. He was very helpful. And he also advised on so many TV shows that he understood what the writing problems were. So he would be helpful in keeping writers close to the facts, and yet tell a good story. In fact, he and I collaborated on a script once, as writers. A M*A*S*H episode.
Did you like science classes as a kid?
Not always. Sometimes the science teachers were not very interesting. Sometimes I was asked to learn things without knowing what the point was, in what way it related to the world.
At some point your realized these were important things to know, though. Enough that you were motivated enough to pick up an issue of Scientific American.
It was fascinating to me.
A lot people don’t have that.
I left a trigonometry class after one class and went down the hall and took a terrible art course just to get out of the trigonometry class. It was a commercial art course where we drew Brillo boxes for the whole semester. And I had loved geometry! And the next thing I knew I was in a trigonometry class and they’re talking about sines and cosines without any mention that it had something to do with triangles. If I had known it had something to do with triangles, I might have been interested because I loved geometry. But there was no physicalizing. It was just all manipulate these numbers and symbols and you get these answers and that’s how you get a good grade. I didn’t care about that. I really was interested in learning, I wasn’t that interested in getting good grades.
Maybe science teachers should learn improv.
(laughs) It doesn’t hurt anybody to learn that.
Alan Alda headshot courtesy Geffen Playhouse. Production photos by Michael Lamont, used with permission. Last photo copyright the author.
Elsewhere on Scientific American:
Steve Mirsky interviews Alan Alda for the Science Talk podcast.
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX