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James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award For Interpreting Chemistry For The Public

by Rudy M. Baum
March 10, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 10

Credit: Courtesy of Alan Alda
Photo of Alan Alda
Credit: Courtesy of Alan Alda

Sponsored by ACS

We knew that Hawkeye Pierce was an M.D., but we didn’t know that he was a serious fan of science.

Alan Alda’s wisecracking character on the beloved television program “M*A*S*H” was an outstanding battlefield surgeon, but he displayed little interest in chemistry other than a fondness for distilled ethanol. In real life, Alda has always been fascinated by science and consumed with a desire to communicate the wonders of science and technology to a broad audience.

For 12 years, Alda was the host of the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers,” which he calls “the best thing I ever did in front of a camera.” His interviews with hundreds of scientists convinced him that they had fascinating stories to tell but often lacked the communication skills to tell them well. This realization inspired the creation of the Stony Brook University, SUNY, Center for Communicating Science, where Alda is a visiting professor. The center’s mission is “to enhance the understanding of science by training the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public.” In courses and workshops at the center, scientists play improvisational games to help them connect more directly and spontaneously with their audiences.

One of Alda’s most successful efforts to link scientists with the public has been the Flame Challenge, which he announced in an editorial in Science in 2012. “I was 11, and I was curious,” he stated in the opening of the editorial. He was mystified by what was going on in a flame. He asked his teacher, and she replied, “It’s oxidation.” “Deflated,” he wrote in the editorial, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”

Alda challenged scientists to answer his question in terms that would be understandable to an 11-year-old. And he announced that the entries would be judged by 11-year-olds. More than 800 entries were submitted from the U.S. and 30 other countries. Chemistry professors and volunteers from ACS screened the entries for accuracy, and they were then judged by more than 6,000 children in more than 100 schools around the world. The question posed for the second Flame Challenge was “What is time?” and the question for the 2014 challenge is “What is color?”

“With a simple query, Alda was able to spur a remarkable response from the scientific community,” says Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of Science. “Just as importantly, he provoked critical thinking about everyday chemistry by thousands of schoolchildren.”

Of winning the Grady-Stack Award, Alda says, “I’m truly stunned, and I’m very grateful that ACS feels the work I’m doing helping scientists communicate better is worth taking note of. We work really hard at this. We are developing a network of institutions that teach communication to scientists. We want to reach the day when education in science includes education in communication.”

Alda, who is 78, has been married for 55 years to Arlene Alda, a photographer and children’s book author. They have three daughters and several grandchildren, and they live in New York City and on Long Island.


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