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.

View all my reviews

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

 

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.

daniel-goldin-nasa-portrait72C
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.

space-station-freedom-nasa
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?