Your mind thinks in stories. Tell better ones to get ahead.
Knowing how to tell a good story is like having mind control. Alan Alda shares some incredible tips for captivating a crowd—or nailing your next job interview.
Alan Alda has earned international recognition as an actor, writer and director. In addition to The Aviator, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, Alda's films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, Flirting With Disaster, Manhattan Murder Mystery, And The Band Played On, Same Time, Next Year and California Suite, as well as The Seduction of Joe Tynan, which he wrote, and The Four Seasons, Sweet Liberty, A New Life and Betsy's Wedding, all of which he wrote and directed. Recently, his film appearances have included Tower Heist, Wanderlust, and Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies.
He helped found the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University where he is a Visiting Professor, helping to develop innovative programs that enable scientists to communicate more effectively with the public. He originated The Flame Challenge, a yearly international competition for scientists in which they compete to explain complex scientific concepts so that 11-year-olds can understand them. Since 2008, he has worked with physicist Brian Greene in presenting the annual World Science Festival in New York City, attended since its inception by over a million people. He has won numerous awards for communicating science from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society, and the National Science Board.
Alda was born in New York City, the son of the distinguished actor, Robert Alda. He began acting in the theater at the age of 16 in summer stock in Barnesville, Pennsylvania.
During his junior year at Fordham University, he studied in Europe where he performed on the stage in Rome and on television in Amsterdam with his father.
After college, he acted at the Cleveland Playhouse on a Ford Foundation grant. On his return to New York, he was seen on Broadway, off-Broadway and on television. He later acquired improvisational training with "Second City" in New York and "Compass" at Hyannisport. That background in political and social satire led to his work as a regular on television's "That Was the Week That Was."
His wife, Arlene, is the author of nineteen books, including her latest, Just Kids from the Bronx. An award winning professional photographer, her work has appeared in a number of magazines and books. They have three daughters and eight grandchildren.c
Alan Alda: I met a nanoscientist at Cornell University who had a really interesting story. He had discovered, with his graduate student, how to make the world’s thinnest glass—it was only one atom thick. The top of it was the same atom as the bottom of it, and he called it “two-dimensional glass.” It was an amazing thing, nobody had ever found a way to make glass this thin before, and it was picked up by one scientific journal.
And it seemed like a more interesting subject than one that would just get that much attention. And a couple of months later he was taking our workshop when we were up at Cornell, and in the course of talking about his discovery we realized that he had discovered how to make the world’s thinnest glass by accident. It wasn't something he was trying to do, an accident happened.
And I said, "You know, this is fascinating. People like us, on the outside, in the public, it's an interesting story to us to know that something so groundbreaking, that helped you understand the structure of glass and might have new uses for glass, that you discovered such a thing by accident. What an interesting story that is."
And also in the meantime he had been cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as having discovered the world's thinnest glass. So now he had two things that would interest the public.
And the next time he gave an interview he started off with the story of how it had been an accident that he discovered this. This human story now led into the technical story about what was the world's thinnest glass, how was it made, and that kind of thing. It became a story that was interesting to other people who don't know the technical details with that familiarity.
And now his story about discovering the glass was picked up by websites and newspapers all over America, all over Great Britain, and venture capitalists started calling him, asking him if they could commercialize this process—just starting with a human story that people on the outside of your work are interested in, because we're all human and we all think in stories. And every experiment has a story. Every life and science has a story and it's so common to hear people, when you say to them in a workshop, “Tell me your story.” They say, “Oh, I don't have a story.” Yes, you do! What's fascinating to you, when you really think about it, about how you got from here to there?
And the most important thing about a story, it turns out—to me, anyway—is the obstacle that you found yourself facing as you were trying to get to your goal. The story is not, “I wanted to get to Toledo, and I went and I got there.” That's okay. It's not much of a story. The story is, “I was headed toward Toledo and the airplanes were shut down, the cars were shut down, the railroad—how was I going to get to Toledo?” That's an interesting story and I want to listen to that. If in the course of that it turns out you discovered a new way to get to Toledo, I want to hear it.
The glass of water exercise is something that I figured out on the way to giving a talk. I wanted to give a talk to writers about what's the essential ingredient of a dramatic story. And I'm in the car with my wife and I said, "I don't know how to start this thing."
She said, "Well, why don't you start with some image." I said, "An image, okay." So an image of a story, a dramatic story, I decided in that moment was: carrying a glass of water across the stage, filled to the brim. So when I got there I said, "Is there somebody relatively brave in the audience? Come on up. Carry this empty glass across the stage."
And it's a little awkward. The audience titters a little bit, but nothing much is happening. She puts the glass down on the table over there. Then I take a pitcher and I fill it all the way to the brim, there's hardly a molecule of water left before it starts to spill, and she's holding the glass and I say, "Okay, now carry the glass carefully across the stage and put it on the table over there, but don't spill a drop or your entire village will die."
Now she's got an obstacle she has to overcome, and she carries it so carefully, so carefully that the audience is riveted to the glass, and if a bead of water goes down the side of the glass you can hear them gasp. Now, everybody knows there's no village, nobody is going to die, but just the imaginary situation that she has this important obstacle makes this an engaging sight, and that happens in every story that has a dramatic obstacle in it. The attempt to get past the obstacle, to get where you're going, to achieve what you're trying to achieve, makes it an interesting story.
So my guess is instead of leaving out your mistakes, instead of leaving out the problems you have in achieving something, whether it's science or whether it's an interview where the prospective boss says, “Tell me about your greatest achievement,” don't just tell them about your greatest achievement, tell them about the problems you had in solving the issue you were dealing with so you could get to something you could call an achievement. That makes it an interesting story. It makes it a more human story and it doesn't make you a braggart, it shows you had something really tough to work on, here's what you thought you might do to make it better. It's engaging, and what you want to do is engage that new employer. You don't want to just give them the facts. “Here are the facts, you ought to hire me.”
He's going to work with you. He's going to work with a person. Give him the person, and if the scientist gives the audience the person and how they felt and what they went through as they were accomplishing this important discovery, we're going to take it in better, we're going to understand it better, and we're going to remember it.
People who are natural storytellers make it look easy, but cut to the moment you're in the hot seat—at an interview, a conference, or even in a social setting—and suddenly the suave-ness is not so forthcoming. So what is the key to telling a story that grips a crowd, and takes them emotionally from point A to point B? This has been a point of focus for actor and author Alan Alda throughout his career, and here he draws on two examples from his life: the first about a brilliant nano-scientist who couldn't get anyone to care about his breakthrough invention until he let slip that it was a total accident; and the second is a simple but astounding demonstration that involves a person carrying a glass of water across a stage. Not exactly riveting? Watch and learn, young grasshopper. Alan Alda's most recent book is If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?.
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New data have set the particle physics community abuzz.
- The first question ever asked in Western philosophy, "What's the world made of?" continues to inspire high energy physicists.
- New experimental results probing the magnetic properties of the muon, a heavier cousin of the electron, seem to indicate that new particles of nature may exist, potentially shedding light on the mystery of dark matter.
- The results are a celebration of the human spirit and our insatiable curiosity to understand the world and our place in it.
If brute force doesn't work, then look into the peculiarities of nothingness. This may sound like a Zen koan, but it's actually the strategy that particle physicists are using to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current registry of all known particles and their interactions. Instead of the usual colliding experiments that smash particles against one another, exciting new results indicate that new vistas into exotic kinds of matter may be glimpsed by carefully measuring the properties of the quantum vacuum. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's go piecemeal.
It is fitting that the first question asked in Western philosophy concerned the material composition of the world. Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle credited Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) with the honor of being the first Western philosopher when he asked the question, "What is the world made of?" What modern high energy physicists do, albeit with very different methodology and equipment, is to follow along the same philosophical tradition of trying to answer this question, assuming that there are indivisible bricks of matter called elementary particles.
Deficits in the Standard Model
Jumping thousands of years of spectacular discoveries, we now have a very neat understanding of the material composition of the world at the subatomic level: a total of 12 particles and the Higgs boson. The 12 particles of matter are divided into two groups, six leptons and six quarks. The six quarks comprise all particles that interact via the strong nuclear force, like protons and neutrons. The leptons include the familiar electron and its two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. The muon is the star of the new experiments.
For all its glory, the Standard Model described above is incomplete. The goal of fundamental physics is to answer the most questions with the least number of assumptions. As it stands, the values of the masses of all particles are parameters that we measure in the laboratory, related to how strongly they interact with the Higgs. We don't know why some interact much stronger than others (and, as a consequence, have larger masses), why there is a prevalence of matter over antimatter, or why the universe seems to be dominated by dark matter — a kind of matter we know nothing about, apart from the fact that it's not part of the recipe included in the Standard Model. We know dark matter has mass since its gravitational effects are felt in familiar matter, the matter that makes up galaxies and stars. But we don't know what it is.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned.
Physicists had hoped that the powerful Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would shed light on the nature of dark matter, but nothing has come up there or in many direct searches, where detectors were mounted to collect dark matter that presumably would rain down from the skies and hit particles of ordinary matter.
Could muons fill in the gaps?
Enter the muons. The hope that these particles can help solve the shortcomings of the Standard Model has two parts to it. The first is that every particle, like a muon, that has an electric charge can be pictured simplistically as a spinning sphere. Spinning spheres and disks of charge create a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the spin. Picture the muon as a tiny spinning top. If it's rotating counterclockwise, its magnetic field would point vertically up. (Grab a glass of water with your right hand and turn it counterclockwise. Your thumb will be pointing up, the direction of the magnetic field.) The spinning muons will be placed into a doughnut-shaped tunnel and forced to go around and around. The tunnel will have its own magnetic field that will interact with the tiny magnetic field of the muons. As the muons circle the doughnut, they will wobble about, just like spinning-tops wobble on the ground due to their interaction with Earth's gravity. The amount of wobbling depends on the magnetic properties of the muon which, in turn, depend on what's going on with the muon in space.
Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
This is where the second idea comes in, the quantum vacuum. In physics, there is no empty space. The so-called vacuum is actually a bubbling soup of particles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second. Everything fluctuates, as encapsulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Energy fluctuates too, what we call zero-point energy. Since energy and mass are interconvertible (E=mc2, remember?), these tiny fluctuations of energy can be momentarily converted into particles that pop out and back into the busy nothingness of the quantum vacuum. Every particle of matter is cloaked with these particles emerging from vacuum fluctuations. Thus, a muon is not only a muon, but a muon dressed with these extra fleeting bits of stuff. That being the case, these extra particles affect a muon's magnetic field, and thus, its wobbling properties.
About 20 years ago, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory detected anomalies in the muon's magnetic properties, larger than what theory predicted. This would mean that the quantum vacuum produces particles not accounted for by the Standard Model: new physics! Fast forward to 2017, and the experiment, at four times higher sensitivity, was repeated at the Fermi National Laboratory, where yours truly was a postdoctoral fellow a while back. The first results of the Muon g-2 experiment were unveiled on 7-April-2021 and not only confirmed the existence of a magnetic moment anomaly but greatly amplified it.
To most people, the official results, published recently, don't seem so exciting: a "tension between theory and experiment of 4.2 standard deviations." The gold standard for a new discovery in particle physics is a 5-sigma variation, or one part in 3.5 million. (That is, running the experiment 3.5 million times and only observing the anomaly once.) However, that's enough for plenty of excitement in the particle physics community, given the remarkable precision of the experimental measurements.
A time for excitement?
Now, results must be reanalyzed very carefully to make sure that (1) there are no hidden experimental errors; and (2) the theoretical calculations are not off. There will be a frenzy of calculations and papers in the coming months, all trying to make sense of the results, both on the experimental and theoretical fronts. And this is exactly how it should be. Science is a community-based effort, and the work of many compete with and complete each other.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned, even if less exciting than new particles. Or maybe, new particles have been there all along, blipping in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum, waiting to be pulled out of this busy nothingness by our tenacious efforts to find out what the world is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.
For nearly two centuries, scientists have known that humans descended from the great apes. But it's proven difficult to precisely map out the branches of that evolutionary tree, especially in terms of determining when and where early Homo species first developed brains similar to modern humans.
There are clear differences between ape and human brains. Compared to apes, the Homo sapiens brain is larger, and its frontal lobe is organized such that we can engage in toolmaking, planning, and language. Other Homo species also enjoyed some of these cognitive innovations, from the Neanderthals to Homo floresiensis, the hobbit-like people who once inhabited Indonesia.
One reason it's been difficult to discern the details of this cognitive evolution from apes to Homo species is that brains don't fossilize, so scientists can't directly study early primate brains. But primate skulls offer clues.
Brains of yore
In a new study published in Science, an international team of researchers analyzed impressions left on the skulls of Homo species to better understand the evolution of primate brains. Using computer tomography on fossil skulls, the team generated images of what the brain structures of early Homo species probably looked like, and then compared those structures to the brains of great apes and modern humans.
The results suggest that Homo species first developed humanlike brains approximately 1.7 to 1.5 million years ago in Africa. This cognitive evolution occurred at roughly the same time Homo species' technology and culture were becoming more complex, with these species developing more sophisticated stone tools and animal food resources.
The team hypothesized that "this pattern reflects interdependent processes of brain-culture coevolution, where cultural innovation triggered changes in cortical interconnectivity and ultimately in external frontal lobe topography."
The team also found that these structural changes occurred after Homo species migrated out of Africa for regions like modern-day Georgia and Southeast Asia, which is where the fossils in the study were discovered. In other words, Homo species still had ape-like brains when some groups first left Africa.
While the study sheds new light on the evolution of primate brains, the team said there's still much to learn about the history of early Homo species, particularly in terms of explaining the morphological diversity of Homo fossils discovered in Africa.
"Deciphering evolutionary process in early Homo remains a challenge that will be met only through the recovery of expanded fossil samples from well-controlled chronological contexts," the researchers wrote.