Alan Alda on Richard Feynman

19 01 2011

Alan Alda is an actor who played Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H. He also wrote a play about one of the greatest communicators of science, Richard Feynman.

In 2002 Alda was asked to give the speech to the graduating class of CALTECH university in the USA. He spoke eloquently to the graduating science students and if you have a few minutes you can read the whole transcript here. In 1974 Richard Feynman had been asked to do the same thing: “This is the way the universe operates,” said Alda, “first Richard Feynman gives the talk; then, 28 years later, an actor who played him on the stage gives it. This is what’s called entropy.”

The whole speech is great but this part of the speech is definitely worth reading. I think the message here is as valid for the graduating students as it is to us as science presenters. We should all be passionate about our science, we should all be trying to communicate that passion, and the best way to do that is not to swamp audiences with fancy words but to put the science into a context, to tell a story that the audience will be moved by.

You’re graduating today partly as Feynman’s heirs in this gloriously courageous willingness to be unsure. And just as he was heir to Newton, who was in turn heir to Galileo . . . I hope you’ll think about devoting some time to helping the rest of us become your heirs.

I’m assuming you’re here at Caltech because you love science, and I’m assuming you’ve learned a great deal here about how to do science. I’m asking you today to devote some significant part of your life to figuring out how to share your love of science with the rest of us.

But not just because explaining to us what you do will get you more funding for what you do . . . although it surely will . . . but just because you love what you do.

And while you’re explaining it, remember that dazzling us with jargon might make us sit in awe of your work, but it won’t make us love it.

Tell us frankly how you got there. If you got there by many twists and turns and blind alleys, don’t leave that out. We love a detective story. If you enjoyed the adventure of getting there, so will we.

Most scientists do leave that out. By the time we hear about their great discoveries, a lot of the doubt is gone. The mistakes and wrong turns are left out . . . and it doesn’t sound like a human thing they’ve done. It separates us from the process.

Whatever you do, help us love science the way you do.




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