Thursday, September 26, 2013

Alan Alda and communication... Passion and the human element (#ACSIndy @ACSNatlMtg)

On the Monday of this month's ACS meeting, the ACS Board of Directors filled their open meeting with a special guest, Alan Alda. The one-hour lunch meeting typically includes time for members in the Presidential succession to make remarks that might be of interest to the attendees. It's meant to provide a forum for communication between ACS members and the Board. A few years ago, the Board noticed that the open board meeting was drawing too small an audience. They started to offer free lunches and a set of discussion topics with relevance to member needs. This has worked well in that the very large room typically fills, leaving many standing. At Indianapolis, the Board may have done this a bit too well. The featured speaker, Alan Alda, drew something like 700-1000 people. He also had enough material to fill the entire hour. The Board showed admirable flexibility in giving up their platform so as to focus on Alda's message, the importance of communication between scientists and the public.

Alan Alda has some real weight on the issue of science communication well beyond the fact that he played a very smart doctor on M*A*S*H. He founded the Alan Alda Center for Science Communication and has been promoting the Flame Challenge project challenging us all to explain science to an 11-year old. Alda tried to convince the audience of one key point: scientists tend to describe their science in such sterile terms that average people (and also our students) find little to relate to. In his dead-pan style he might have said that one point was about as much as we might remember after his presentation, but he needed an hour to have us remember even that. He encouraged us to connect our science to the human condition and relate it to the public. The latter may not understand how the Schrödinger Equation reveals how one can obtain the relative location of atoms by measuring the signals from nuclear spins, but they can relate to the fact that an MRI gives them information to identify and possibly cure a disease. As scientists, it's our job to advance science, but he reminded us that it's also our job to translate it to society. He warned us, though, that we should not be too dry in our delivery when speaking to the public. This convinced me that I should try to exhibit a bit more passion for my work in my next public talk...

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