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Alan Alda on Axions, dark matter, higher mathematics

In Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this interview series with Alan Alda, we discussed a lot, including the actor’s fascination with Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman and the Broadway play QED that he created about Fenyman, fame, curiosity and fear. , his podcast Clear+Vivid, the popular TV series M*A*S*H, Alda’s play about radium discoverer Madame Curie, Paul McCartney and more.

Here, in Part 4, Alda tells us how he creates characters as an actor, discusses his ideas about influential 20th century scientists and communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, and more. Below are edited excerpts from a longer Zoom call.

Jim Clash: Your Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University helps scientists communicate their technical knowledge in a way the average person can understand. You’re a great actor and you make it look easy. I’m sure that’s not the case. Explain to us non-actors how you do it.

Alan Alda: Last night my wife and I were watching a TV series and I said, “She’s really good, isn’t she?” My wife said, “Yes, she’s great.” I said she was so good that it didn’t seem to require any effort, that she was really the person going through the experience. To my taste, good actors are like that. How they get there is different for different people. There are different schools of thought about acting.

Some people believe that the way you understand the person behaves physically and vocally will convey the character to the audience. Others believe that you can express more without making those conscious efforts, but by working on your subconscious in a way that doesn’t tell your face and body how to move. This way you get something lifelike. I’m more in this second camp. But there are wonderful, convincing actors who can put on a character like a cloak.

Paul Newman’s wife (Joanne Woodward) said that it takes fifteen years to become a good actor, no matter what theory you work under and what training you receive. I have seen people who showed no talent whatsoever and who, after ten or fifteen years of training, could do extraordinary things: moving, lifelike, inspired. You stay with it. I like to think that every time I start a new project, I reinvent my method, try to see what works best, and experiment.

Clash: If you were to make a list of the best scientific minds of the twentyeCentury, who would you put on it?

Alda: I’m not very good at that. I find it difficult to judge people’s talents and abilities. It’s not like high jumping. The high jump is the same for everyone. The person who invented CASPEr (Cosmic Axion Spin Precession Experiment) is on a different scale than the person who discovered that dark matter and dark energy exist.

Clash: Fair enough. What about a scientist you think was influential?

Alda: Recently I was with (Nobel Prize winner) Frank Wilczek, a nice man. He invented something called an axion, which he believed could possibly be dark matter, or closely related to it.

We were sitting around a table with about ten people and the question arose: “Is there a center in the universe or not?” The universe is expanding rapidly in all directions. Why is it that it is difficult for most to imagine that there is no center in it? It’s the kind of question that shows the difference between the way scientists can think and the way the rest of us think.

Scientists can think mathematically, go beyond the edge of what we consider regular, everyday reality, and know something as surely as if they could see it in reality, but thanks to mathematics. But that higher math is not readily available to most of us. So something like the question of whether the universe has a center, and that it started from a big bang, is difficult for most of us to imagine, not even able to put it into words, because it seems so contradictory.

Let’s go back to (Richard) Feynman for a moment. He said if you can’t explain it to a child, you may not understand it yourself. That really puts a burden on the interpreter (laughs).

Clash: I’ve always seen Neil deGrasse Tyson as someone who is able to take complex scientific topics and make them understandable to us average Joes.

Alda: One of the things I admire about Neil that he does intentionally is keep up with what’s happening in popular culture. He knows what a lot of people in the culture are already aware of, and uses that as a gateway to explain more complex ideas in science. I think that’s a good idea. I don’t, I don’t keep a close eye on popular culture. I’ll have to have someone explain it to me before I know it.

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