Alan Alda Asks Scientists "What Is A Flame?"

At age 11, actor Alan Alda asked his teacher what a flame was. He received a confusing answer: "oxidation." In the spirit of better communicating science, he's created the "Flame Challenge," a contest in which scientists do their best to define a flame. Eleven-year-olds from around the world will judge the entries.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. It's an experience every parent has had: Your kids get to a certain age, suddenly all day, all night, it's nonstop quizzing about how the world works, like why is the sky blue, what does the beach have waves, why do we have seasons? And you think you'd be able to explain the science behind those phenomena to your kids' satisfaction? Not easy, is it?

For my next guest, at age 11, his big question was: What is a flame? A question his teacher couldn't answer to his satisfaction, which is why he's here today to talk about his Flame Challenge, a contest that encourages scientists to speak in plain English, without dumbing down the science. And we're going to talk to him about communicating science to the public.

Of course I'm talking about Alan Alda. He is actor, director, screenwriter. He is certainly no stranger to science. he's played Richard Feynman on stage. He's hosted "Scientific American Frontiers" on TV, and he's founding member of Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York or the University of New York at Stony Brook. He's here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Good to see you again.

ALAN ALDA: Hi, Ira, good to see you, thank you.

FLATOW: Did you really ask that question?

ALDA: Oh, of course I did. Yeah, no, I wouldn't lie.

FLATOW: What was behind that? Give us the backstory.

ALDA: You know, I was 11 years old. I'd always been very curious, and for days I had been intrigued by the flame at the end of a candle. So I couldn't figure it out. It didn't have any substance, and yet it had power. You know, you could burn yourself with it. But you could push your finger right through it if you did it fast enough, and you wouldn't feel anything. And I couldn't figure out what it was.

So I asked a teacher: What's a flame? What's going on in there? And she paused for a second, and said it's oxidation. And that's all she said. And I was dumbfounded. I thought there's got to be more to that than just calling it another name. I don't know what oxidation is, and she didn't explain it.

And that stuck with me for a long time. So, because I do a lot of work with the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook, and we train scientists in communication skills. So Science, the journal Science, asked me to write a guest editorial. So I told this story about oxidation and the flame.

And at the end, I said: How about we have a contest? And this is for scientists out there. Can you explain what a flame is so than 11-year-old would understand it and would maybe even be engaged by it, have a little fun with the answer?

So we put that up on the Web, and we've had hundreds of scientists. I think by the time it's - this contest will end on April 2nd - and by that time, I don't know, we may have 1,000 answers - but from around the world: Australia, New Zealand, Brazil.

And the contest is not going to be judged by people like you and me. It's going to be judged by 11-year-olds.

FLATOW: Who better?

ALDA: Yes, come on. I mean, it's to see if you can get through to them. There are going to be about 10,000 11 - 10- to 12-year-olds from all over the world - Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, there's an Aboriginal classroom that's joining the judging cohort.

FLATOW: Really?

ALDA: So it's really exciting, and it's caught a lot of people's attention because it's a very simple question to pose. It turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. It gets into not just chemistry, but quantum mechanics if you really want to go all the way, and it's not easy to get - in fact, sometimes it's not easy to get two scientists to agree exactly on what the explanation is.

FLATOW: We love when that happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: Oh, it's great, it's great. I mean, by and large everybody agrees, but when you start saying but wait, what do you mean by that word? You know, there are certain words that everybody knows the meaning of, but if you say but I'm an 11-year-old, I don't really know what that word means, let's break that down. Then you start getting into kind of complicated ideas.

FLATOW: And you're familiar, of course, with the Michael Faraday lecture.

ALDA: Yes, yeah, I didn't become familiar with it until we started the contest. So I've been so busy trying to help get the contest going, I haven't read the Faraday lectures, but they - I've read little snippets, and it looks great.

FLATOW: But your idea, I guess your question you were asking, which is something that he tackled in 1860, and it's such a universal question, and a good one to ask and answer.

ALDA: And he went on and on for a few hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Explaining it, yes.

ALDA: I mean, it's not easy, and he was the great man. And you know who - on YouTube you can see a wonderful vide of Richard Feynman talking about what a flame is. You know, I love Feynman.

FLATOW: What was it like playing Richard Feynman?

ALDA: It was just great, because you couldn't get to the bottom of who he was. He is so many people in one that you - we finally - finally a friend of mine who is a mathematician, Steve Shrogets(ph), said: Well, maybe the central image for him is his idea that a particle takes every possible path, and then most of them can't - they all can't (unintelligible) themselves out except for the path you observe.

And that's, sort of, him. He took every possible path. He was all over the universe at the same moment.

FLATOW: And a great practical joker.

ALDA: You know, all the old things, safecracker at Los Alamos and bongo player. He was a remarkable person and what a communicator he was. And we use - in a way, we use him as a model, sometimes, at the Center for Communicating Science because we're very aware that he spoke in very plain language, Richard Feynman, but he never oversimplified it. And he always let you know if he got to a point where it got more complex after that point.

He would let you know it gets more complex, and he might say I'm not going to get into that now, I'll get into it a little later. And then when it came time to explore that complexity, he would, but he didn't leave you with the impression that you knew all there was to know about it if you only got so far.

FLATOW: And, you know, that famous phrase about there's room at the bottom, when he's talking about...

ALDA: Yeah, he opened the door to nanotechnology.

FLATOW: Nanotechnology. He had so many great phrases. When you - I saw you do - I saw you. I think it was at Lincoln Center.

ALDA: Yes, yes.

FLATOW: I saw you do that performance. It was very - it was a great performance, but how to learn how to play the bongos, I don't think I could...

ALDA: I did have to learn how to play them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: And I set myself this ridiculous task. I said: You know what would be really great? If we have him talking about science while he's playing the bongo. Wouldn't that be good? And everybody said yeah. And then I had to learn how to do it, and it's really hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Be careful what you ask for, right, you might get it. You - in your TV series, you talk to so many scientists, and how much of that was scripted? How much of that is you? I mean, because I can see you have this natural curiosity, you were asking about the flame at 11.

ALDA: Well, the only thing that was scripted on that show was the narration, while you're watching scientists and getting from one interview to another. And that was written by the producers of the show. But the convers - that would usually be written after we shot the conversations with the scientists and after they decided what pieces they want to use, so that they could get from one to the other comfortably.

But those conversations we had, and they were conversations, they weren't really interviews, they - I never knew the answer to the question I was asking. And the only reason I ever asked a question is because I was really curious about the answer.

So this changed the way the scientists talked to me, from the way they would talk in a normal interview, or they were giving a lecture. It took them out of lecture mode, and it brought them into human interaction. And you could see the change in their faces, you could see the change in their voices. It became a more intimate exchange, and that, the real person came out of the scientist.

So, you weren't stuck with the stereotype of the dense talk.

FLATOW: And you know, as a - you know because you're an actor, and you know how to react to somebody being enthusiastic to you, you can draw them out even further.

ALDA: That's right, but always genuinely, and never pretended to something I - in fact sometimes - I remember grabbing Eric Lander by both cheeks, shaking his head and saying: I don't get it. What are you talking about?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: And he's a very communicative guy. But, you know...

FLATOW: Phil Morrison did that to me once.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I said to him: I don't understand what you're saying. It was a long time ago. And he said: That's the whole point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: Well, you know, Feynman, I think it was Feynman who said: You want me to explain why I got the Nobel Prize in 15 seconds? If I could do that, they wouldn't give you a Nobel Prize for it, if you could do it in 15 seconds. But the thing is, the effort is really worth it, I think, on behalf of all of us I say this, of those of us who are curious about science even those of us who are not curious about it.

We need to be more conversant with it because science is in our lives. It's in everything. It's in the food we eat. It's in the air we breathe. It's everywhere. And if we don't understand it well enough to ask the right questions, we can't even take care of ourselves in the face of, say for instance, science that needs more caution, right?

I mean, scientists are exercising that caution. Don't we want, as citizens, to know that the right questions are being asked? I mean, that's an app of - it's an argument to our fears. That's just one thing. The other, the more important one, is an argument to our own curiosity. Our lives will be richer the more we know.

FLATOW: And shouldn't scientists be able to tell you what they do?

ALDA: Yes.

FLATOW: I mean, they should be able to tell you what they do.

ALDA: For so many reasons in so many ways, scientists, right now, have to talk to funders, to policymakers, to other scientists, maybe, who might not be in their own field. They have to be clear to all these people.

And then there's - so many young scientists that I know with this poignant wish that they could explain their work to their own grandmothers, and they have a problem. But I talked to a member of Congress once who said: Do you know how important this is? I've been on so many committee hearings where the members of Congress would be lined up at a table, sitting at a table.

On the other side of the table was a panel of scientists, and the members of Congress would be passing notes to one another. They'd say: Do you know what this guy's talking - I don't know what he's talking - do you know what he's talking - no, I don't know. That's not right. But I mean, we should be able to talk back and forth and know because things will get turned down that don't deserve to be turned down.

Or what you'll have - you know, this bothers me, is some people say, you know, the idea - I have 17 thoughts at once, I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You're in the right place.

ALDA: You know, in an alternate universe, you can cut some of this out.

FLATOW: We have multiverses here.

ALDA: There are people who are naturally talented at communicating, scientists who are. Well, they - I've been told by a lot of people who run institutions that work with scientists that at meetings where they present their papers, the ones that communicate better do better.

FLATOW: All right, hold that thought because we're going to come back and pick it up from there, talking with Alan Alda. You know who he is. he's also founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, used to SUNY Stony Brook. I'm a SUNY Buffalo grad. We're all in the same system.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: We're going to take a break, come back and take your questions, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Alan Alda. He is an actor, director, screenwriter. He has done everything, almost, and he has come to - toward the end of his career, and his career is, by the way, not over yet, he has...

ALDA: It's not even toward the end.

FLATOW: It's not even toward the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: I'm just learning how to do it. What are you...?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You discovered science. I mean, all those years, we have - one of our advisors is Danica McKellar from "The Wonder Years." She has started to write books about mathematics, and she's now the - and maybe this is the career I should've gone into, talking about science more. I'm sure you don't think that way, but you certainly have discovered something in communicating science that maybe you might have tried a little while ago.

ALDA: Well, I did start that "Scientific American Frontiers" I think something like 20 years ago.

FLATOW: That's nothing in our business, (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: What do you want from me?

FLATOW: All right, we'll take that.

ALDA: Up until then, I've just been entertaining myself just reading about science.

FLATOW: But you've always been interested because you had that challenge about the flame going.

ALDA: Yeah, yeah, I always have been curious.

FLATOW: Why are you not afraid to talk to these scientists? You know, one of the things about being a science interviewer and communicator is getting past the point, well, gee, this is a big Nobel Prize-winning guy.

ALDA: Well, here's - I make use of my ignorance. I have a fund of it, and I don't strive for ignorance; I come by it naturally. But what I have is curiosity because I want to fill up the hole of ignorance, and I really want to know more. So who better to talk to than the Nobel Prize-winner who can get right down to the bottom of a question?

So I love talking to them. The smarter they are, the more I love talking to them. By the way, the first couple of times I interviewed a Nobel Prize-winner, I was nervous, until I realized that I'm not supposed to look smart, they are.

FLATOW: He was probably more nervous talking to you.

ALDA: Well, yeah, what's this idiot going to ask me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: No, I think Alan Alda's name carries some weight. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to John(ph) in Falls Church, Virginia. Hi, John.

JOHN: Good afternoon. I'm glad to speak here.

ALDA: Hello, John.

JOHN: I wanted to mention something about your question of the flame description, and one thing that intrigued me when I was a child was the difference between events and things and the nature of flame being mostly events but only partly thing. And of course that depends on the child's developmental stage, what they can understand.

Something else I'd also like to mention is that at the end of next month is the USA Science and Engineering Festival in D.C., and it's part of science and engineering speakers and events all over the U.S. for all this past year, and then it culminates at the festival in D.C., which is free and open to everybody

FLATOW: All right, that is - yeah, that's something that we probably will cover, but thank you for bringing it up for us. Have a good weekend, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Did you want to say anything?

ALDA: No, no, no, no, no, that's good.

FLATOW: Let's go to another caller because a lot of people are talking about science. Let's go to Nicholas(ph) in Minnesota. Hi, Nicholas.

NICHOLAS: Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

NICHOLAS: How do you do?

FLATOW: Go ahead.

NICHOLAS: I wanted to make the comment that - well first off, Alan Alda, you have changed my life profoundly. I have been watching "M*A*S*H" since I have been six years old with my grandmother and my grandparents. Thank you very much for that.

ALDA: Well, thank you.

NICHOLAS: And second off, when I was in third grade, Mrs. Anderson(ph), I asked that same question.

ALDA: You did?

NICHOLAS: I asked her what is fire, I don't understand. And she said it's life.

ALDA: She said what, it's light?

NICHOLAS: Life, yeah, L-I-F-E, life.

ALDA: Life, it's life.

FLATOW: You know, that's...

NICHOLAS: It's alive. It dances, it plays, it consumes. It does everything.

FLATOW: It does all the things that - it has all life functions, right?

ALDA: Yeah, the funny thing is, that's - I mean, it's a little poetic, but you could draw the connection between those two things that I thought he was saying, between light and life and combustion and all of that stuff. The thing is: How do you - did she leave it at that, or did she go on further? Or is Nicholas gone?

FLATOW: I think he's gone, yeah. You know, there is an old alchemist poem I read years ago that talked about a flame as being alive and how to describe it that way except it had no substance to it. Now they use different definitions because we have now genetics we can talk about, whether, you know, whether...

ALDA: Right, right, but the notion of it being an event is an interesting notion.

FLATOW: So do you find that scientists, when you talk to them at Stony Brook, do you find - or graduate students that they have the - that they know that they should be able to speak English to the...?

ALDA: They do, they do, and it's not only a question of speaking English. We train them in written material, and we also train them in orally presented material, that they'd get up in front of an audience and talk with them. And they're - it's very interesting because the way - we have this innovative way of training them to get up in front of people which is we teach them improvisation.

FLATOW: Oh, is that right?

ALDA: The same kind of course we would put them through if we were teaching them acting. However, I want to make it clear: We're not trying to turn them into actors or entertainers. What we're trying to do is let the real person emerge, and that is exactly what happens when you learn improvising.

These are very specific improvising exercises and games. It's not intended to lead to comedy the way some improvising does. And one of the things - the reason I came up with this idea of improvising is that when we were doing "Scientific American Frontiers," the fact that we had that conversation I was describing before led to real interaction between us, the same way you get an interaction in an improvisational sketch or exercise.

So I thought: What would happen if I put some scientists through an improvisational workshop and see if that would open them up and make them more at ease when they turn to an audience?

And the first group that I did it with was a group of 20-year-old engineers, engineering students, amazing. They came in, they gave a two-minute talk about their work. Then we improvised for only three hours. Then they gave a talk again, and even - the good ones got better, and the weak ones got better. Everybody rose. All the boats rose.

And then Stony Brook was the first place to actually - that I ran into where I was like Johnny Appleseed, trying to spread this idea of teaching the skills of communication all through a science education, not slapping it on for a couple hours at the end.

So together we started the Center for Communicating Science, and they're really terrific about how they've organized this. So now, communication skills are taught for credit in science - in several science courses at Stony Brook. And it's - and there are other universities sending people to us to learn how we do it and to be affiliated with us.

It's caught on so much sooner than I thought. I didn't think I'd see any results to this until several years after I was dead, and it's happening. People are curious. And as you said in your question, yes, they really want to communicate better. And this enables them to play games in the improvisational workshop where they have to observe one another. You have to be tuned into one another.

And they can take that and turn it to the audience and make the audience the fellow player instead of talking over their heads, actually literally looking over their heads.

FLATOW: Right, next slide, please.

ALDA: Yeah, right.

FLATOW: No PowerPoint?

ALDA: Oh no, forget that. Not only that, no reading.

FLATOW: Is that right, no notes?

ALDA: I'll tell you, I found a very curious thing. I saw them getting better and better, more spontaneous, more alive, more present, and I thought: I wonder if this is affecting the way they write. So I asked them to write a couple of paragraphs just to see if the writing had changed. The writing hadn't changed that much.

We found, though, that it's better to do the improvising before we work on writing things. But it was OK. The writing hadn't changed. But you know what changed when they started to read? Their reading was terrible. And it wasn't because it was worse after the improvising, it was never very good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: And this is true not of scientists only but of everybody, all of us read badly. We read in a sing-song. We mispronounce words frequently. And there's an - I think there's something interesting going on in the brain, and I've asked brain scientists about this, but that hasn't been studied yet. But the way you can get them to really communicate with the audience is take away the PowerPoint take away anything that they might read to the audience because these people have been doing this work for 10, 20 years. They must know it and love it well enough to talk about it without reading it.

And now that I've been teaching this, I will not go up even with a note in my hand to talk to a group of people. If I forget what I wanted to say, it was probably well-forgotten.

FLATOW: Interesting, and you say this is spreading to other universities, they're coming and learning?

ALDA: Yeah. Well, we've gone and done workshops at other universities. Other universities come to us. And of science centers, Brookhaven, Cold Springs, Harvard, we were at UCLA last year. And it's really wonderful to see the reaction that the scientists have to it. They really do want to learn.

FLATOW: Well, now that science is under attack from so many different directions, it behooves scientists to be able to say, to - and speak what they do...

ALDA: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: ...about what they do?

ALDA: Yeah. If two scientists are giving their papers at a symposium, and one of them is just naturally better at talking to the public or talking to a group of people, that scientist is liable to get more attention - in fact, I'm told that they do get more attention - than the one who's a little more stiff about it. Well, that's not good for science. The one who's not that naturally predisposed, is liable not to get - his work or her work is liable not to get the same treatment as the other one. They might be equally good, or one - the one - the other one may not be as good as scientist, you know, or have that much to offer. So I don't think the solution is to have everybody communicate less well so that the playing field is even. I think we want to try to bring everybody's ability up.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones to - is it Gwyneth(ph) in Maryland? Hi, Gwyneth.

GWYNETH: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

GWYNETH: I have a question.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

GWYNETH: I was wondering whether it would be too late to get my daughter's fifth grade science class in on the voting.

ALDA: No, it's not too late. That would be wonderful. If you would go to the website, which is theflamechallenge - no, just flamechallenge - I'm sorry, flamechallenge.org.

FLATOW: I'm sure we have it on our website.

GWYNETH: OK.

ALDA: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: It's on our website. Go to sciencefriday.com. We have the link up there.

ALDA: And all of the rules and the way to get your class registered is in there.

FLATOW: Is your class interested in this?

GWYNETH: Well, this is the first time I've heard of it, and I'm excited. I want to know what a flame is, and she's already smarter than me, I think. So I just put it together.

ALDA: Well, that's great, that would be wonderful. We've got classes all over the world interested in this. So I'm - it would be wonderful to have you join it.

FLATOW: And you know what you find? When you talk to teachers and kids, when we put up educational websites for kids on our website, we find that half the people who come are adults.

ALDA: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: They are just as interested.

ALDA: You know, when somebody explains this really well, what a flame is to an 11-year-old really, really well, I'll finally understand it, and I'm looking forward to that.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's true. We actually - Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor, loves flames, and she does videos about them all the time. And we discovered a picture of a flame today, what it looks like in zero gravity.

ALDA: What is it? A ball?

FLATOW: Yeah.

ALDA: Yeah.

FLATOW: It's a ball, and we're trying to - you know, we're going to try to - actually, we have a colleague of ours up there on the Space Station. We're going to see if they can - we can get them to do an experiment for us.

ALDA: You have a colleague in the space station?

FLATOW: Yeah. Some of them...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Not - well, not a radio person, but one of the astronauts up there. He's reporting for us up there, so...

ALDA: Somebody whose show gets low ratings, you send them to the Space Station.

FLATOW: Yeah. They were voted off the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. This is Ira Flatow, talking with Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo.

ALDA: Oh, D'Abruzzo. That's nice, yes.

FLATOW: D'Abruzzo.

ALDA: That was nice to hear my name.

FLATOW: Other - well, we have...

ALDA: And still my name. I never changed it legally.

FLATOW: Is that right?

ALDA: Yeah. My father changed it when - his name was Alphonso D'Abruzzo too. And he took AL from Alphonso and DA from D'Abruzzo. And he made all the - and the opera singer Frances Alda screamed at him once. How dare you steal my name? He said, oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know. I just made it up. She said, that's all right. I made it up too.

FLATOW: Well, you know, the producer who talked to you was Christopher Intagliata...

ALDA: Oh.

FLATOW: ...and he makes sure that I pronounce it that way also.

ALDA: You said it. Don't say tagaliata.

FLATOW: That's right. So in the few minutes we have left, so what's next for you? What do you have on the burner?

ALDA: Well, we're - we just had a meeting this morning. We're going to announce the winner of the flame challenge at the World Science Festival. I'm going to have a...

FLATOW: In Washington.

ALDA: No, no. In New York.

FLATOW: Oh, the World - oh, that's coming up in the...

ALDA: World Science Festival in June...

FLATOW: Right. Right, right.

ALDA: ...beginning of - end of May, beginning of June. So that. We're working on that. I'm also working on a new series, a mini - a short series on PBS called "Brains on Trial," which is - it concerns the advances in neuroscience, what new things we're learning about the brain and how that might affect the justice system.

FLATOW: Oh.

ALDA: So it's really fascinating stuff. So, naturally, they're going to put me in an MRI again. And then...

FLATOW: Ain't that the thing? Let's see what we can do to the host.

ALDA: I hate that.

FLATOW: I know what happens to your intestines on the way down that mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: This is going to be an interesting show. I think it'll be on next season.

FLATOW: Next season. And...

ALDA: Yeah.

FLATOW: You remember Steve Allen's show "Meeting of the Minds," where he...

ALDA: Yes, I do. Yeah.

FLATOW: ...where he brought people together, and...

ALDA: Yeah, that was wonderful.

FLATOW: ...and they talked about it? But this one is going to be you and your mind. We're going to look inside your head.

ALDA: Well - yeah, they'll look in my head, but meanwhile I'll get to talk to people who can understand what's in my head. I had my - I had an fMRI done on me once by a lovely woman in Boston, very smart person who, when I came out, she looked up from the computer and she said, you have a plump hippocampus.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: I hope I didn't misinterpret it.

FLATOW: You've never had an opening line like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: No. No. I wouldn't recommend trying it at a bar, you know?

FLATOW: But having played a presidential candidate on television...

ALDA: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: ...you have no desire to enter into politics...

ALDA: Oh, my God. No, no.

FLATOW: ...or do any of this stuff?

ALDA: I'm still trying to learn how to do what I actually do. And I do - you know, I really do try to figure out a way I can be helpful. And I think I'm being helpful with Communicating Science. And I'm trying to learn, still to learn better how to write and how to act, which are the things that I've wanted to do all my life.

FLATOW: Right.

ALDA: You know, I asked my first science question when I was 11, I guess, but I wanted to be a writer at the age of eight.

FLATOW: Is that right?

ALDA: Yeah. And an actor at the age of nine. So I've - these interests have been long time cooking.

FLATOW: You've had a couple of books out?

ALDA: Yeah.

FLATOW: Any more on the horizon?

ALDA: I hadn't thought of anything yet. When I think of a book, I'll call you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Well, I haven't got any ideas for it.

ALDA: No. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You know, we all are - well, you know, scientists, in this business, in this live radio show, it's always asking a question today that tomorrow you wish I had asked yesterday.

ALDA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it's always - there's always what are you going to do next. I'm actually going to do several things, but I never can remember them when I'm - I'm always knocking myself out.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. Well, you can tweet us. We could just...

ALDA: Oh, that's so good. I don't know how to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: It's not the technology. It's that I don't want to get on the social media thing.

FLATOW: Right, right.

ALDA: I love technology.

FLATOW: Right.

ALDA: I fix my grandchildren's computers.

FLATOW: OK.

ALDA: Yeah, yeah. I have a service. I call it celebrity tech support.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALDA: And the slogan is why let a nobody touch your stuff.

FLATOW: I can't top that. Alan, we're going to end our interview right now. Alan Alda, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

ALDA: Thank you, Ira. I enjoyed it.

FLATOW: He is a founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.

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