A sM*A*S*Hing CERN visit

Alan Alda, the actor best known for playing medic Hawkeye Pierce on yesteryear’s TV series M*A*S*H, really likes science. Moreover, the Scientific American Frontiers TV program inspired his passion for science communication. Since then, he has become an advocate for increased public literacy in science. He visited CERN and the ATLAS experiment last week.


Alan Alda enjoying his visit to the ATLAS cavern.

 “I’d been reading about it so much, I just wanted to see it,” he said. He does in fact have a connection with one of the LHC experiments. A few years ago, a fan of his from ATLAS asked if he would draw an Einstein cartoon to go on their fundraising T-shirts. Alda said he spent weeks on the caricature, and he joked that, “there would be no ATLAS project without that T-shirt,” which was a hit. Indeed, his favourite moment was underground when he was standing on the platform and looking at the giant detector.

Alda helped cover the opening of the LHC in 2008 for the BBC, but this week was his first time visiting the laboratory in person. “It’s just a wonderful thing,” he said. “It’s not only an extraordinary scientific and technological achievement, but also a great human achievement.”

While he was filming episodes of Scientific American Frontiers, Alda said, he was most struck by how much benefit he got out of talking to scientists in an informal, conversational atmosphere. “Because it was a conversation, the scientist couldn’t get into lecture mode,” he said. This type of open back-and-forth, telling stories in a way that engages the listener, makes understanding complex ideas possible. “Stories stick with you longer,” he said.

Alda wondered why communication wasn’t being taught alongside science as a skill which is as important for scientists as mathematics or mechanics. “I think it is an essential part of science,” he said, “because you can’t just do the science and not communicate it to other scientists, to the public, to funders, to students... I’ve talked to members of Congress who had no idea what the scientists were telling them during hearings… It’s horrifying.”

Scientists naturally want to teach, Alda said, and the best way to do it is by telling their stories to those who are interested. “It’s so exciting to see real curiosity and see it fed,” he said. “It’s a skill and an art, but scientists are also artists, and they’re capable of that part of it, too.”

This is a shortened version of a longer article from the Symmetry Breaking blog.

by Amy Elizabeth Dusto