A Challenge to Make Science Crystal Clear


What is a flame? At 11, Alan Alda was fascinated by the colorful, translucent undulations of a burning flame. So he asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” “It’s oxidation,” she said. The answer dumbfounded him. A flame is indeed oxidation, a type of chemical reaction that occurs when something burns. But the word did not capture why a flame burns orange or why it produces heat, or anything else that the young Mr. Alda really wanted to know about it.

“It’s just giving it another name,” he said by telephone last week. “It’s like saying, ‘Well, a flame is Fred.’ And that really doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Mr. Alda, now 76, pursued acting rather than science — many people still think of him as Hawkeye Pierce from the television series “M*A*S*H” — but his fascination with the universe persisted.

In the 1990s, he led the collaboration that created “QED,” a play about the brilliant, irascible, bongo-playing physicist Richard Feynman, with Mr. Alda playing Dr. Feynman. Also, for 11 years, he hosted the PBS television show “Scientific American Frontiers.”

In talking to so many scientists, Mr. Alda wondered how they might do better at explaining their work, and suggested to universities that communication skills should be taught to science majors and graduate students. He made that pitch to officials at Stony Brook University on Long Island, who liked it so much that they founded the Center for Communicating Science in 2009.

Written By: Kenneth Chang
continue to source article at nytimes.com


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