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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With a nod to the loneliest born…

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:


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.

NASA: Previewing and Pioneering

For people interested and/or concerned with NASA’s future under President-elect Donald Trump, I point you to two sources I respect and find enlightening.

  1. As a member of The Planetary Society, I enjoy regular blogging and podcast content from Director of Advocacy Casey Dreier. Monitoring the political landscape is his job. Here’s Casey’s preview perspective: NASA Under Trump.
  2. For another take, I recommend space blogger Heather Archuletta, aka Pillownaut. When it comes to space blogging you could say Pillownaut is one of my mentors. Her views are very well-informed, albeit less restrained. She is not bound by the non-partisan obligations Casey adheres to working for a non-profit organization. Here’s Pillownaut’s preview perspective: The Future of NASA?

In any case, Lit for Space is a vehicle for marrying my love of literature with my love of space exploration. If you want to interact with me regarding the current political fray, and many other topics, I can be found on Twitter: @childejake. Now on to the featured content of this post.

NASA and Pioneering

On the topic of guard changing, I went back to 2002. President George W. Bush had recently appointed Sean O’Keefe to head NASA. O’Keefe was a novel choice. Neither a veteran engineer nor a test pilot (like his successors), O’Keefe hailed from the world of public administration. His resume was nonetheless impressive, as NASA’s history page for him relates.

Sean O’Keefe, Image Credit NASA/Bill Ingalls

A few months back I read a copy of O’Keefe’s Senate confirmation hearing remarks and frankly found them underwhelming by way of being overly apologetic. See my above note on him being outside the traditional NASA mold. Last week I pulled down the address he gave at Syracuse University after about four months of being on the job. O’Keefe talks expansively and passionately about NASA’s future via the theme of pioneering. I highly recommend reading this address, available as a PDF:

Pioneering the Future

In terms of being literature, O’Keefe’s speech exemplifies how significant the word “pioneering” is for NASA. For starters, we have the Pioneer space missions. In particular, Pioneers 10 and 11, which literally pioneered regions of our solar system never before explored directly by humanity. They achieved the most basic and obvious manner of pioneering, travelling farther out than anyone has before.

What I appreciate most about O’Keefe’s remarks is his use of pioneering in ways that transcend mere physical distance. Consider the title, a direct reference to pioneering forward through time. Elsewhere in his speech, he references deep space observations by telescopes like Hubble. Telescopic observation counts as pioneering the past, because the further a telescope sees, the older is the light reaching its lense.

Lastly, and so importantly for NASA’s heritage, O’Keefe relates NASA’s pioneering efforts on–and pointed at–planet Earth. NASA pioneers technology directly benefiting us on the ground. NASA points some of its on-orbit technology back at our planet to observe the atmosphere, the oceans, and the land. Everyone from farmers to people worried about mosquito-borne diseases benefits. See his remarks on page 6 under the heading “To understand and protect our home planet.”

O’Keefe’s remarks run to 14 pages. If you only read a chunk, read page 4 where he imagines life on Earth in 2030. He envisions all that America’s space program has achieved. Here is one excerpt which speaks to an aspect of Earth observation many of us hope remains a NASA priority under President-elect Trump’s administration. Imagining the year 2030, as pioneered in part by NASA research, Administrator O’Keefe said this:

“We understand our home: NASA’s missions revealed the complex interactions among the Earth’s major systems, vastly improving weather, climate, earthquake, and volcanic eruption forecasting – and the impact that our Sun has on our living world.”

Let there be Law, saith the Universe

The things we can do because Isaac Newton figured out gravity for us. This graphic depicts the 155-orbit Solstice Mission of the Cassini spacecraft. This multi-year mission has avoided crashing into Saturn, any of its moons, or accidentally hurtling aimlessly into deep space because we can measure and utilize gravity. Image Credit: NASA JPL/Caltech

Right now scientists are spending lots of time and money looking for a “Planet X.” Unseen, possibly non-existent, its presence is being mathematically inferred by researchers thirsty for discovery. The reason their search is not ridiculous is that it has been done before. And it worked!

The planet Neptune was discovered sans telescope. Researchers in 1846 used math coupled with the best observations of known planets at the time. They discovered Neptune by detecting its gravitational influence on planets they could see. I’m reading up on this for use in my creative writing. My chosen book is The Planet Neptune: An Exposition and History, by John Pringle Nichol. (Yes, I’m suddenly thinking about potato chips too.)

“The unity of this great Universe is unbroken; it is the appointed theatre of uninterrupted law: and the power to follow that law through the Heavens, and to discern by its aid the inter-dependence of their most varied and gorgeous phenomena, was the legacy bequeathed to human genius and perseverance by him who, in this sense, has never yet been approached–our own immortal Newton.”

–J.P. Nichol, The Planet Neptune, Part First, Picture of the Solar System

In the first part of Nichol’s book, the rhetoric comes lofty from his pen. I enjoyed sampling his 1847 perspective, more closely tuned to our present-day view than I might have assumed. He speaks of a universe in which the gravity of everything, even a single pebble, affects the gravity of everything else. Had the phrase butterfly effect been in the lexicon at that time, I suspect Nichol would have given that meteorological notion a nod for gravity’s sake.

Nichol revels in the unity, harmony, and especially the complexity of the cosmos, which math and astronomy make decipherable. In describing the apparent oscillation of stars, he all but introduces exoplanet research (which is all the rage today for discovery-thirsty scientists and science journalists). His ultimate refrain, summed up in the above quote, is to praise the virtue of “august Law” at work in the Heavens. Lofty indeed!

Questions for Comment

When expressing your sense of the universe and its movements, what words come to mind? Why are you drawn to these words?

Science on a Theme of Heroism

“There is a herolike narrative in science that, perhaps surprisingly, is not that far from a sports narrative.”

–Marcelo Gleiser, 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog

The above quote comes from a wonderful Olympics-themed post from the excellent science blog 13.7. I recommend stopping here, clicking the link above, and reading Dr. Gleiser’s post instead of mine. I am more interested in how it addresses the notion of heroic narrative than in its sports analogy. No bother. The analogy proves meaningful and the blog post brings light to the realities, sometimes heroic and sometimes self-serving, of scientific culture.

Heroic Photobomb Anyone?
Trojan asteroid 3540 Protesilaos photobombs distant galaxy Messier 74 in this infrared image (actually multiple frames combined) taken with NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Years ago I wrote a caption for a similar Hubble image which appeared in The Planetary Report. In both cases, an effort to image far-away galaxies resulted in inadvertently imaging closer-up asteroids. I can’t help but find humor in this astronomical phenomena.

One other note, the person who introduced me to Trojan asteroids was science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who featured them in his novel The Hammer of God. These potentially harmful rocks orbit the sun in the same path as Jupiter. They follow this path ahead of or behind the gas giant. If you are unaware of the underlying reason NASA has invested in missions to asteroids, I recommend reading Clarke’s heroic novel.

See no black hole. Hear no black hole?

“Supermassive black holes in the universe are like a raucous choir singing in the language of X-rays. When black holes pull in surrounding matter, they let out powerful X-ray bursts. This song of X-rays, coming from a chorus of millions of black holes, fills the entire sky — a phenomenon astronomers call the cosmic X-ray background.”

Chorus of Black Holes Sings in X-Rays, Whitney Clavin, Caltech

A view from the bustling center of our galactic metropolis. Spitzer Space Telescope offers us a fresh, infrared view of the frenzied scene at the center of our Milky Way, revealing what lies behind the dust.
An X-ray image of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, taken from NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array), is inset in an infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voracious reader would be an overstatement, but I do consume my share of text-heavy NASA press releases and news stories. (Hey, this is “Lit for Space.” I’m all about text-heavy.) The above quote comes from a NASA JPL News story featuring the NuSTAR mission. What does the NuStar mission entail? Here’s a short video.

NuSTAR’s orbiting pair of telescopes make highly sensitive observations of distant phenomena, especially black holes. Given the mysterious nature of these invisible marvels, how does NASA make black holes comprehensible to non-scientists like myself? Ms. Clavin at Caltech chose a choir analogy. Having many cherished choir memories, I relished this choice.

If you ever attempt to read a technical article from an academic journal, you may wind up with a headache. I did. Such writing comes laden with jargon and complex math. It is an arcane style of communication that, however crucial to science, fails miserably to educate the masses. When informing the tax-paying public who funded the research, the value of a well-crafted analogy becomes apparent.

Scientists Debate on StarTalk Radio

A recent podcast from StarTalk Radio visited the topic of sound analogies. Everybody’s “personal astrophysicist,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, took a contrarian position. He did so in reference to gravitational waves, not to be confused with NuSTAR’s choral X-rays. The context was a discussion with scientists involved with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).

Last year, LIGO researchers made the first-ever observation of a gravitational wave. In the resulting publicity, scientists and reporters have, um, gravitated toward sound analogies. Dr. Tyson pushed back against using this literary device.

First, Tyson cited the famous movie tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream.” This quote appeared on posters for the sci-fi classic Alien. It also constitutes a scientifically accurate statement. Sound waves cannot propagate in empty space. Tyson asked, “So why this urge to always analogize it to sound? I think that’s misleading the public.”

Tyson’s objection provoked some fun banter, a specialty of StarTalk broadcasts. Dr. Janna Levin pushed back by saying this: “It’s actually stronger than an analogy. Let’s say two black holes collide. … They will literally ripple the shape of space-time.” Dr. Levin went on to explain how this rippling could, if you were close enough, set your eardrums ringing.

When it comes to sound-based analogies, Levin may be a little biased. She recently published a book called Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outerspace. Now, if you’ve made it this far, I’d like to know what you think.

Questions for Comment

What cosmic analogies have science communicators used to teach you? Why did you, or did you not, find them helpful?

NASA, Bacteria, Verbs, and Breast Cancer

How I wish I could tell you that breast cancer has been cured. And how nifty it would be to tell you that NASA cured it. Nevertheless, I can pass along encouraging news. NASA technology has contributed to new understanding about the nature of breast cancer. This will supplement further research and—perhaps—lead to the desired cure.

With the above paragraph, the question of certainty is all in the verb phrasing. Could vs would vs can vs has vs will. My two dictionary apps refer to these words as auxiliary verbs. They support action verbs like tell, contributed, and lead. Auxiliary verbs indicate the relative gravity of their action verb counterparts. What do I mean? “NASA could contribute,” has less gravity than, “NASA will contribute.”


NASA’s Role in Medical Research

Good news for us Earth-bound folk. When it comes to diseases like breast cancer, NASA’s ability to contribute is not a question of can or could. NASA’s contribution is a matter of has and will.

In 2011, NASA personnel prepared the Juno spacecraft for launch in a clean room setting to avoid contaminating the spacecraft with bacteria. This significantly reduces the risk of contaminating Jupiter’s moons, potential carriers of life, when Juno arrives next month. Image Credit: NASA, Kim Shiflett

The above image shows a common scene at NASA: scientists and engineers dressed like surgeons. Just like surgeons, they zealously try to avoid depositing bacteria on their subject. We want our robotic explorers spick-and-span when they reach potentially life-harboring destinations. What does that have to do with breast cancer research?

The same technology used to study bacterial contamination of spacecraft has now been used to evaluate the role of bacteria in breast cancer. I’ll spare you my crude summations and encourage you to read the following story:

NASA Technology Applied in Breast Cancer Study

I went through the above story and pulled out a bunch of verbs and verb phrases, specifically ones tied to sentence subjects. Here they are laid out in the order in which they appear in the story. For fun, let’s pretend what follows is an award-winning contemporary poem. I’ll even give it a title. SPOILER ALERT: the poem’s conclusion is quite strong:


The Choice Verbs of Breast Cancer Research

have more to do with
were designed
was led by
have previously documented
contains … and … secretes
don’t yet know
was then analyzed
will continue to propel
could contribute to
is needed
have known for
can trigger


The Verbal Path to Discovery

As I isolated the above verb phrases from NASA’s story, my mind was drawn to the auxiliary verbs. They play a pivotal role, in effect measuring the confidence of the medical research’s findings.

In the writing of scientists and scientific communicators, discovery is a wonderful and desirable noun that seems to wait expectantly beyond a fleet of purposeful verbs. Some of these verbs hedge. Some speak with absoluteness. At their most responsible, these verbs remind us that science is a process. No one study is a complete conversation. In fact, each individual scientific study is somewhat like a verb, providing direction and measured strength to the ongoing quest for knowledge.