If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?

Alan Alda and Tina Fey come together to show the importance of communication in the sciences as part of the World Science Festival in New York, making science fun in the process.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?

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"I was interviewing astronomers in Chile at 8,000 feet up on top of a mountain and I got the worst pain I had ever experienced in my life and they took me down to this little hospital in La Serena, Chile, and the doctor there was wonderful, Dr Nelson Zepeda," said Alan Alda. "This was the first example I had of what was the perfect communication of science. It was absolutely perfect."

"He said here's what happened. Some of your intestines has gone bad and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together. And I said, Oh you're going to do an end-to-end anastomosis."

"How do you know that? said the doctor."

"Oh I did many of them on MASH!"

Alan Alda, the beloved Hawkeye on MASH, was joined by Tina Fey to explain how improvisation has become an integral technique to teach scientists how to communicate with the general public.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?, is the title of Alda's new book and the event, held on Thursday, June 1, 2017, at the New-York Historical Society, was a part of the World Science Festival.

The festival was started in 2008 as a way to bring science out of the laboratories and out into the streets, parks, museums, galleries and premier performing arts venues of New York City. Alda and Fey brought their unique talents to the New York Historical Society for an intimate conversation on what led Alda to become a proponent of the sciences, the founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, and a founding Board Member of the World Science Festival.

The two comedians took to the stage to share anecdotes and real techniques used at Stony Brook to teach scientists how to translate their jargon in a way that excites and educates the public. Utilizing methods the two actors learned during their days with the Second City Comedy troupe, the two performed a skit in gibberish, bringing the audience to fits of laughter, and understanding. The use of non-verbal communication is a powerful tool in improv and Alda and Fey brought it to the forefront.

After his eleven-year stint on MASH, playing surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, Alan Alda took on hosting duties for PBS' Scientific American Frontiers. The experience led directly to his decision to start the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. During the decade hosting the show, Alda wanted to learn what the scientists actually did by spending the day with them in an unscripted one-on-one improvisational performance for the cameras.

His "ah-ha" moment came early in the series while interviewing a well-known scientist.

"We had this connection between us, there was a nice intimate tone, she was speaking so I could understand her, it was just terrific. And I think something she said reminded her that this was just like a lecture she gave and slowly she turned away from me and looked right at the camera and started giving it a lecture. She was in total lecture mode. Her vocabulary changed, the tone of her voice changed, I couldn't understand her anymore. And she was telling the camera this and I coaxed her back with some questions and it changed again now she was talking to me like a regular person."

"We were improvising! What if we trained scientists, I thought, to learn how to communicate while they are learning how to be scientists. And what if we start them off with improv classes so they learn how to get this connection."

They have now trained over 8,000 scientists world-wide. Tina Fey was the perfect straight man during the night.

Alan Alda and Tina Fey come together to show the importance of communication in the sciences as part of the World Science Festival in New York, making science fun in the process. PHOTO BY MARK D PHILLIPS

At one point, Alda brought Brian Greene, a distinguished physicist, best-selling author, and one of the world’s foremost science communicators to the stage to explain science to Fey, armed with a buzzer she could push whenever she did not understand. If the buzzer sounded, Greene had to go back and translate what he said in a different way. Once he finished, Fey had to explain what he had communicated to her.

Alda told him to start out like he was speaking to a graduate student.

"You're so screwed," said Fey.

Watching Greene try to explain string theory to her was hilarious. It was like a game show as her hand hovered over the buzzer with every mention of a scientific term.

"So String theory, it's our attempt to unify the general Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics in a way....." BUZZ. Laughter.

Greene went on to further explain these two items in easier detail.

"So let's start with general Relativity. That's a theory of the force of Gravity. Are we good on Gravity?" Greene asked.

"OK," said Fey.

"Quantum Mechanics is a theory of (LAUGHTER) matter, very small scales, how the particles interact, behave, evolve by the schrotenger equation (BUZZ)... We don't need the schrotenger equation. So our goal is to be able have a single theory that can put together the laws of gravity and the laws of Quantum Physics so we have one unified mathematical description of everything in the physical universe."

"Oh that's pretty good," said Fey. "String Theory is so you have one language to understand all of it."

Hearing Alan Alda, who we always thought of as just an actor, talk about science and the way it should be communicated to the public was an enlightening experience that was only presented thanks to the World Science Festival.

The event is a jewel for New York City and after ten years, its importance only grows.