Think you understand Alan Alda?

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and CommunicatingIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The greatest science communication failure of recent history occurred during breaking news coverage of the Higgs boson particle discovery. At least, that’s my opinion. This particle, claimed to be the active ingredient in objects having mass, is a huge deal. Yet, look at this gibberish news outlets threw at me as the leading quotation for the achievement.

“We have observed a new boson with a mass of 125.3 plus or minus 0.6 GeV at 4.9 standard deviations.”

No offense to Dr. Joe Incandela, who made the above technical statement to a room full of scientists. Following his words, the gathering bubbled over with applause, even tears in at least one case. But the jargon was lost on me. That day I refused to be impressed as a matter of principle. Science had failed to explain itself.

Such disconnects between scientists and the public comprise the impetus for Alan Alda’s latest book: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Known to many for his acting career, Alda has dedicated much of his time to promoting better science communication. Far from being a mere on-camera spokesman, Alda works as a Visiting Professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Using personal examples, as well as research, Alda makes the case for empathy as essential to good communication. He couples this with insights regarding the Theory of Mind. Think of empathy as the emotional connection, and Theory of Mind as the rational component. Empathy, according to Alda, is a skill which can be developed and refined.

Not surprisingly, Alda advocates cultivating empathy through theatrical improv (a serious performance method, not merely a game-driven attempt to get laughs). Anyone who has taken an acting class with improv as a component, myself included, will find this to be self-evident. The same practiced skills which help actors connect onstage can help scientists connect with the public. As Alda relates, this extends to medical doctors, business leaders, hopeful lovers, and parents mentoring children.

If I Understood You… stays on task via short chapters and focused, conversational prose. It wraps up in a tidy 200 pages. There is also an audio version, read by Alda, which I’ll safely assume is highly enjoyable. The result is a book calculated to be accessible, informative and thought-provoking.

Odd then that this book sometimes struggled to hold my interest. If I Understood You… is full of nuggets: nuggets of wisdom, hindsight, and profound experience. Any chapter by itself can be a delight, and many were for me. Yet, perhaps because of the testimonial nature, perhaps because of the copious repetition of its premise, the book sometimes felt like an after-dinner conversation growing tiresome. In no way am I panning it. However, I do suggest readers avoid devouring the book quickly (which I did so I could post my review asap).

Given its levelheaded blend of entertainment with educational discourse, If I Understood You… disqualifies itself from being Alda’s most fun book yet. It may however prove his most important, given the toxic level of animosity in current public discussion. Therefore, I highly recommend reading it. Come for the theory, but stay for the moments of sublime understanding.

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Seasons of Planets

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Montage of planets and Jovian moons imaged by the Voyager mission, Image Credit: NASA

Four Haiku for Planets

Shy Mercury peeks
Flowers tickle its south pole
In young frosty air

Venus flashes Earth
Nubile dome-draping bright orb
Nude in the warm dusk

Jupiter dons stripes
Gas-lit hues of dying leaves
Cast through harvest breeze

Saturn trims the black
Storefront with icy china
Glints on Old Man’s breath

Poet’s Notes

The above represent more completed homework assignments from my journey through Stephen Fry’s wonderful book The Ode Less Travelled.

For my previous foray into planetary haiku, please read this post.

And lastly, I hope you are having a good National Poetry Month.

Recommended: Science Fact Clichés

 

Here’s a great piece from NPR this week. In the audio version, NPR Science Editor Geoff Brumfiel and Weekend Edition Sunday Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro banter about science journalism clichés and the news stories that utilize them:

It Sounds Like Science Fiction But … It’s a Cliché

 

With a nod to the loneliest born…

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From NASA’s website: “This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system…”, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The space exploration community is yapping about exoplanets. Here we go again, making the most of minimal data, stretching the meaning of the word “discovery” to its absolute limit, taking blurry imagery of distant stars and inferring the existence of whole solar systems. What can I say? When it comes to exoplanet research, Jake Christensen is a grinch.

Yet, even as I remain straddled between the platforms of healthy skepticism and indulgent cynicism, I must also say the search for worlds around distant stars seems to be generating a lot of work for illustrators. Speaking as a creative writer, that is a mighty good thing.

Yesterday, exoplanet research added a layer of significance to a poem I encountered. The late poet Darrell Gray wrote a piece entitled simply “Planets”. It is a very short poem, only two lines long. Please follow the link below. Read the poem a few times. Then take a deep breath and read it a couple more times. Again, it’s only two lines long. Afterwards, I invite you to come back here for my thoughts and the opportunity to comment:

Planets

Initially, I disliked Mr. Gray’s poem. In particular, the word “unborn” turned me off. It read a bit needy to me, maudlin perhaps. I suspected the poet of trying to amp up the emotional value of an ordinary thought. Granting the genuine pain involved, it is quite ordinary for a person to say they feel alone. Trust me, I’m a bachelor. Even the cosmic metaphor failed to increase my enjoyment. It is standard usage for scientists to refer to planets and stars as being born and eventually dying.

But then I did what I asked you, good reader, to do above. I read the poem several times. I took a deep breath. I read it a couple more. “Planets” does something I love to see poems do. It promotes humility. It takes humility to give credence to the notion that our very bodies are like shadows of things which haven’t even come into existence. The vastness of the cosmos—the innumerable things already gone and yet to come—all but commands us to be humble.

If you enjoyed Mr. Gray’s poem, head to the Poetry Foundation website for some more samples. I especially recommend his poem “Elephants”.

I also read a tribute to him by Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press. It’s rather long by blogging standards, but wonderful in its rendering of poets living life in the context of their poetic urges.

Now, here is a link to the NASA press release for recent exoplanet findings. Worth a look even if, like me, you’re a mix of skeptical and cynical.

Lastly, I highly recommend listening to a recent podcast from StarTalk All-Stars. I think because of the thoughtful mood Mr. Gray’s poem put me in, I found this episode, co-hosted by astrophysicist Emily Rice and comic Chuck Nice, to be thoughtful, humorous, and ultimately endearing. Listen to the romanticism in their voices.

Eagle vs. Armadillo in NASA Rhetoric

“…we can’t keep living off Apollo’s bounty. Currently, the hair of a scientist can turn gray waiting to get their first experiment on the shuttle, let alone the necessary follow-up research.”

—Daniel S. Goldin, NASA Administrator

Yesterday I went digging for speeches by former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. And these days digging is what you must do to find archival material on nasa.gov, especially bookish things like administrator speeches. I dug, dug, dug, like an armadillo you might say.

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Daniel S. Goldin, Image Credit: NASA

I wound up at the out-of-the-way, but highly useful, NASA NTRS webpage (NASA Technical Reports Server). They dished me up an interesting speech Mr. Goldin gave at the Space Station Utilization Conference held in Huntsville, Alabama on August 4, 1992. He spoke about Space Station Freedom, the conceptual precursor to our International Space Station.

You are hereby invited to ditch my blog and read the three-page speech in its entirety:

Goldin Speech on Space Station Freedom

In a culture where all NASA speeches exist in the shadow of that one President Kennedy gave (you know the one), it’s understandable this address ended up tucked away in an archive. After all, it promotes a Reagan Era space station that was never actually built. Yet, with impassioned tone, Goldin’s speech effectively lays out the rationale for putting a continuously inhabited laboratory in Low Earth Orbit.

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Artist concept image of Space Station Freedom by Tom Buzbee, Image Credit: NASA

On a literary level, I most enjoyed mulling over Goldin’s use of an animal kingdom analogy, which he borrowed from NASA Scientist Rick Chappell. The analogy contrasts a soaring eagle with a scurrying armadillo. In short, when it comes to research and exploration we need to be like an eagle, not an armadillo. Why? Goldin and Chappell portray the high-soaring eagle as having a wise long-range mindset. The burrowing armadillo, however, only cares about finding its next meal.

Zoologists may be better equipped to weigh the merits of denigrating armadillos simply because they cannot fly. I believe there is both engineering and literary merit in honoring critters who are good on the ground. Still, Americans have long loved their eagle mascot for good reasons. Any metaphor which clarifies the wisdom of keen vision and long-term, broad-perspective thinking has merit.

Now, if only for the fun of it, here are a few words in favor of the armadillo. In recent decades both Hollywood and the aerospace industry have given this creature nods. Google “Armageddon Armadillo” and “Armadillo Aerospace” to see this animal’s rocky road to iconic status. While you’re at it, for a chuckle do an image search on the “pink fairy armadillo.” Now there’s a cute little armored critter for you!

Getting back to Goldin’s speech, we can look at today’s International Space Station and see the remarkable achievement of continual human presence in space. The day-to-day research and public-private partnerships Goldin envisioned in 1992 have come to fruition. But, in a quest for clever analogies, we could also look at the hardworking occupants of the ISS as they tunnel through the station’s interior, or scurry about the exterior wearing protective layers. We can observe them busily engaged in domicile maintenance and resupply missions. Do they seem more like eagles or armadillos?

Star Wars and the Devoutly Lukewarm Empire’s End

Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To hear Mark Hamill and Johnny Carson banter about it on The Tonight Show in 1977, the magic ingredient of the original Star Wars movie was the utter black and white of its morality. Good versus evil. Light versus dark. A swashbuckling morality play with no gray area. In the late 70s, coming out of the Vietnam War, such clarity in the guise of sci-fi fantasy must have felt blissful.

Yet when Lando Calrissian attempts to play the Rebellion and the Empire off each other in The Empire Strikes Back, the morality of Star Wars heads into a murky area. Though Lando ultimately picks a side, a torch of moral uncertainty passes to and from Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as they strive to convert each other to their respective sides—both claiming to have the galaxy’s best interests in mind. Most recently, Disney and Lucasfilm’s Rogue One revels in moral ambiguity.

Everything I’ve said above applies to Aftermath: Empire’s End, the final installment in Chuck Wendig’s trilogy of novels bridging the storylines of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Like the makers of Rogue One, Wendig dramatizes moral uncertainty with zeal. His characters grapple with the close resemblance of justice and revenge. The begged question is quite fair. Why do we forgive aggressive and violent political tactics used by the Republic that we condemn when used by the Empire?

The ensemble of Empire’s End features a bounty hunter, an ex-imperial loyalty officer, and an X-Wing pilot who finds herself fighting the remnants of the Empire off the books. In tow are her technologically precocious son and his likably lethal battle droid Mister Bones. Just as Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca found themselves swept up in the political intrigue surrounding the first Death Star, this newer ensemble finds themselves inexorably drawn to the planet Jakku. There an epic battle plays out over the last roughly 100 pages of the book. The resulting wreckage serves as the backdrop for early scenes of The Force Awakens.

Wendig’s ensemble seems utterly beset with nuanced ethical quandaries. We know they’ll win the battle (not a spoiler; it’s in the title folks). But we don’t know if they’ll come out of it with their consciences intact. All the while the novel’s broad strokes paint a picture of a New Republic which could easily become a new Empire, albeit driven by good intentions.

One of the best moments for me comes as two minor characters converse about the nature of the Force. One lets slip a notion that, “…maybe there is no dark side.” This idea doesn’t become the thrust of Empire’s End, but it underscores the murky nature of the post-Lucas Star Wars universe.

Wendig also does a great job developing the character of Sinjir, who struggles to come to terms with his Imperial past. Notable as one of Star Wars’ first openly gay characters, Sinjir also scores the novel’s main romantic subplot. This may be a deal breaker for some fans. However, I felt Wendig entertainingly drew out the same universal sexual tension George Lucas relied on to fire up Han and Leia’s adventure in the original trilogy.

This may be the last Star Wars novel I read. I admire how Wendig avoids enslaving his cast of characters to the film canon. He lets Sinjir and the gang have their own adventures. Of arguably greater value, he strikes a tone that is both thoughtful and playful. Still, there are too many books I want to read for me to invest too much time watching the Star Wars machine feverishly spin new plot threads, only to tie them obsessively back into the original storyline for the cheap thrill of it. Folks, take it from an old-school fan, it’ll never be more amazing than the first time we heard Darth Vader say, “No, I am your father.” It just won’t. Does that make me a bad fan? A good fan just needing a break? Or a fair-weather fan somewhere in between?

I recommend Empire’s End to those who read and enjoyed the previous two Star Wars: Aftermath books. For everyone else, I recommend the first Aftermath novel.

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A Rhyme at the Museum

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Through stately vaulted epochs, nature lies.
   Within the grand exterior abide
Its cramped curated corridors. Surmise
   How densely braided narrows add up wide.
Exhaustive alcoves crib and fossilize,
   With plastered captioned fact, the herds that died.
Museums grant, when sparing no expenses,
A teeming shrine of archived consequences.

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Behold how dolphin skeletons must soar
   To make way for hyped Mesozoic blight.
Famed Allosaurus claims the central floor;
   Its Aves heirs sit shelved nigh out of sight.
Small upstart mammals loiter near the door
   To offshoot hallways lined with all things -ite.
Yes, even geodes—banished to the border—
Succumb to dead T-Rex’s pecking order.

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Poet’s Note

The above two stanzas comprise a partial takeaway from my recent visit to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History. I went there for a science-themed artist date, following a week which included some frustrating writer’s block. I decided to practice a poetic form called ottava rima. As should be readily apparent when reading, the meter is iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme is abababcc.

As humans explore Mars, and even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, we hunt for the very types of things showcased in our natural history museums. Visit them. Take stock of your reactions. And if you are so inclined, write a poem after!

For more poetry-focused posts, visit the Poetry Tag.