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Alan Alda Films Series Episode at Media Lab

By Jiri Schindler
Staff reporter

Actor Alan Alda, known to many as Hawkeye from the television series M*A*S*H and from several Woody Alan films, visited the Media Lab last week to film an episode of Scientific American Frontiers, a popular public television science series he hosts.

The show has covered topics from self-guiding cruise-control systems to child psychology and enjoys a wide following by a broad spectrum of viewers.

It is geared toward scientists and lay people alike, from elementary-school kids to 80-year-olds. It is even sometimes watched in diners by waitresses and truck-drivers instead of football games, Alda said.

The show is also used in many schools' science curriculums. Alda believes the show's wide acceptance results from producers' effort to make each episode visually interesting and use common language for describing the frontiers of new knowledge.

Alda talks with MAS members

In each episode, Alda talks informally to scientists conducting research and asks questions that evoke responses that the general public can understand.

Alda filmed with several people from MIT, including Bruce M. Blumberg G, a graduate student in media arts and sciences, and MAS Associate Professor Patricia Maes.

Blumberg presented his research on motion detection of a person in a known environment and the possibility of commanding a virtual watchdog named Silas.

Maes presented Firefly, a so-called autonomous agent that previews information about popular culture and that can learn users' preferences. Firefly uses the World-Wide Web as its graphical user interface.

Filming of the episode took place in a sparsely furnished room in the basement of the Media Lab. The front wall of the room displayed a projection screen that showed an image of the room and including the silhouette of Alda and the computer-generated dog Silas.

Alda talked with Blumberg while playing with the virtual dog and trying to make it follow his commands. Later, the host and researchers moved over to a computer and talked about the Web and its applications to new technologies.

Alda films in a relaxed manner

This relaxed style of filming is characteristic for Alda and Scientific American Frontiers. Alda reads about the episodes' topics beforehand for background and to "get a feel for" the science, he said.

Alda does not, however, prepare a rigid script, nor does he speak with the researchers he interviews or rehearse questions before filming. Instead, he relies on the spontaneity of the discussion and his natural curiosity for new things to make the show interesting, he said.

Since each film shoot is therefore unique, there are occasional places in the final cut where conversation does not flow smoothly. But instead of detracting from the show, that roughness adds authenticity and brings the viewer closer to an otherwise distant researcher, Alda said.

Part of the job's excitement is meeting people who like to experiment and try new things, Alda said. While filming the series he has learned that even research and experimentation that lacks a practical application is important because it pushes forward the way people think, he said.

The series, which was formerly hosted by Professor of Mechanical Engineering Woodie C. Flowers, is directed and produced by Graham Chedd. The Media Lab episode is scheduled to be aired this fall on the Discovery Channel.