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Alan Alda tackles 'M*A*T*H' - and science - in conversation

  1. January 17, 2008
  2. Paul Kilduff
  3. SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
  4. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2008/01/17/NSUEUFKP8.DTL

Pick the brain of your garden-variety Hollywood celebrity about science, and chances are the exercise won't take too long - unless you're talking to Alan Alda. Just to make sure he really knows his stuff, in "MATH" Alda will undergo a thorough examination of his science acumen onstage tonight courtesy of Bob Osserman of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley.

Best known as Hawkeye Pierce in the enduring '70s TV classic comedy MASH, Alda has long held an interest in science. An unabashed fan of the actor, Osserman became aware of Alda's thirst for science when the actor hosted the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers.

"He's not just going through the motions," Osserman says. In his role as interviewer, Osserman doesn't have a checklist of issues to cover. He sees his job as opening Alda up to touch on a number of topics. "Who knows where he's going to go?"

Of course, Osserman will discuss Alda's storied career, but don't be surprised if he also brings up the actor's recent brush with death. As Alda discusses in his two memoirs - Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, and Other Things I've Learned and Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself - he's lucky to be alive. While filming an astronomy episode of Scientific American Frontiers in Chile, Alda was stricken with an excruciating pain in his abdomen and was rushed to the hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. The doctor explained the procedure to Alda in laymen's terms as taking out the "dead" part of his intestine and then sewing the two remaining parts together.

"Oh, you're going to do an end-to-end anastomosis," Alda remarked. Flabbergasted, the doctor asked where Alda had obtained his medical knowledge. "Oh, I did many of them on MASH, " Alda said.

To cheer Alda up in the recovery room, the astronomer, whom Alda was profiling for the show, stopped by to discuss one of the actor's favorite topics: curved space time. You know, how we live in space and time combined - Einstein covered it in his theory of relativity. Osserman also covered it in his book Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Explanation of the Cosmos.

Osserman has done a similar conversation with comedian Steve Martin titled "Funny Numbers." He sees high-profile Americans talking about science as a way to encourage kids - and anyone else - to explore scientific frontiers risk-free.

"Being interested in science in our culture has a stigma attached to it. You're a nerd," Osserman says. But when you see a likable, non-nerd like Alda discussing his interest in the subject, it says to people of all ages, "It's OK to be interested in science." Right on.

7 p.m. today. $22/$14. Roda Theater. 2015 Addison St. (near the Downtown Berkeley BART Station), Berkeley. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org (click on "Buy Tickets").

Copyright 2008 SF Chronicle