Searching for a spark in a haystack: Alan Alda leads a PBS quest for the human essence


It won’t surprise you to know that Alan Alda gets stopped on the street by people who recognize his face. What may surprise you is that it’s no longer shouts of “Hawkeye!” that greet the M*A*S*H star. Nor is it, usually, that people recognize the Oscar nominee for his film roles. These days, more often than not, people know Alda from his second career as a science educator.

Not that he sees himself that way. “It’s not a mission,” said the longtime Scientific American Frontiers host when I talked with him last Friday in St. Paul. “It’s not a cause. Science just interests me.” Alda was at the Science Museum of Minnesota for a TPT event promoting The Human Spark, a three-part series premiering in January on PBS. (Video excerpts and outtakes can be seen on the show’s Web site.)

In the series, Alda searches for that elusive quality that separates humans from members of other species: that thing that we have that chimps (and computers) lack. He talked with dozens of neuroscientists, anthropologists, and other experts in an effort to get to the heart of the matter. He even subjected himself to a series of tests; in the final episode of the series, viewers will see the results of brain scans that reveal, as precisely as is currently possible, exactly what makes Alda tick.

“Alan’s very curious,” said series producer Graham Chedd, who was with Alda at the Science Museum. “He loves to chat with scientists. He’s not an interviewer—they just have marvelous conversations.”

Did they find it—the human spark? Yes and no. “There are several different views on what it is,” said Alda. “Our capacity for inventiveness, for organization, for imagination.” A recurring theme, he said, is humans’ unique capacity for social interaction. “We can get into the minds of others, take different perspectives. That gives us an ability to cooperate that no other animal has. When any one of us creates something, we can share it with other people who can preserve it and build on it.”

Of course, not all of our collective cognition is that sophisticated: when we spread fads, for example, we’re not acting all that differently than ants who trade chemical signals. “Maybe one day you put on your baseball cap backwards,” said Alda, “and you become part of a social trend. You don’t necessarily know that, though. You just look in the mirror and think, ‘wow, I’m looking good.'”

Though Chedd was inspired to create the series by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of Adam receiving life from the hand of God, both Chedd and Alda said that theological considerations are beyond the scope of The Human Spark. “There is no scientific solution,” said Alda, to inscrutable questions regarding the human soul. “A scientific line of inquiry is never going to satisfy someone who’s interested in the transcendent.”

Alda’s knack for bridging the gap between the lab and the living room has caught the interest of viewers from all walks of life. “Multiple times,” said Chedd, “we’ve been out doing interviews and we’ve been approached by grad students who tell Alan that a show he did inspired them to study science in college.”

Everywhere he goes, said Alda, people want to talk with him about the scientific questions he’s pursued—and they’re not all wearing lab coats. “Waitresses, truck drivers—they’ve seen the shows and thought about these things, and they’re curious too.”