Q&A with Alan Alda

We asked Alda about science, ketchup and why he looks better in a suit than a loincloth.

Do you consider yourself an amateur scientist?
No. That would be like a fan of a movie thinking they were in show business.

So you’re a fan.
Yeah, I love it. I eat it up. I can’t get enough of it, pretty much all I read about is science.

You often play doctors and smart characters. Do you have a smart look about you?
I think I look better in a suit than a loincloth. So that may define some of the parts I play.

So you’re moderating a panel on altruism at the World Science Festival?
Yeah. E.O. Wilson will be one of the people on the panel. This subject—what it means to be human—is going to be a staple of the festival each year. What distinguishes us from all the other animals? What makes us so special? Are we special? I think most people are interested in our origins; once we understand, it might be easier to become the people we’d like to be. Or, better, become the people we think we already are.

I start reading about string theory and get nervous.
It’s at the very frontier of what people understand about the universe. So the people doing it don’t fully understand it, they’re pushing the barrier. Richard Feynman used to suggest that if you get into a book and it starts to get too dense or too complicated, you should go back to the beginning and start reading it again. By the time you get back to the hard part, it might be easier.

I don’t know if I have that dedication.
You don’t have to be that dedicated, it’s fascinating! It’s like reading a good detective story. Once you figure out this puzzle, you know something about the world that you didn’t know before that’s actually true.

Do you know your IQ?
No, I don’t. I think it’s less than my wife’s, that’s all I need to know. She just shot me a look.

You’re doing a panel about your movie Flash of Genius. Do you ever have flashes of brilliance?
I used to be an amateur inventor when I was a kid; I’m always inventing something. Usually it’s useless, but this one actually works: I invented a way to hook something onto your camera so that when you took a picture you didn’t get red-eye. And it worked. I was really delighted.

You should’ve patented that.
That’s what my wife said. I don’t have time, I’ll leave it to posterity.

When you were a kid, what was your big dream?
I had two main inventions. One was a lazy Susan for a refrigerator, I thought of that when I was ten. So if the ketchup is in the back, you can just turn the wheel and it comes out to the front.

I could use that!
They actually made them for a year or so, independent of me. And then they stopped doing it, I guess because people had bottles of ketchup flying around in their kitchens. There is a kind of drawback to it. And then I made a five-way can opener—I didn’t make it, I drew it—opening things five different ways. Probably none of them would have worked.

Centuries from now, people will look back on your drawings.
Like Da Vinci’s! Yes, at that time I wrote backwards, like Da Vinci.

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