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June 19, 2008

Alda on Einstein

Nature 453, 987 (19 June 2008) | doi:10.1038/453987a; Published online 18 June 2008

Q&A: Insight into Einstein

Actor Alan Alda, who starred in the television series M*A*S*H and now hosts Scientific American Frontiers on US network PBS, is fascinated with physics. At last month's World Science Festival in New York he led a panel discussing the quantum world, portrayed Richard Feynman in the play QED, and presented Dear Albert, his new play drawn from Albert Einstein's letters.

Why did Einstein's letters interest you?

It's very important for us to see that science is done by people, not just brains but whole human beings, and sometimes at great cost. Letters can be very personal, and sometimes confrontational.

I had also planned to write a play about Marie Curie's letters. I got a little discouraged because not only are they in Polish and French, but the French letters are still slightly radioactive. After you look at them they go over you with a Geiger counter. I thought I'd wait until somebody else goes in a hazmat suit and translates them. So I stuck with Einstein.

Einstein emerges from your play as a highly volatile character, sometimes spiteful and domineering, sometimes withdrawn and resigned. How do you see him?

Einstein claims not to have felt lonely, but he was a lonesome figure. He could see far out into the cosmos but he was myopic about the people next to him. It was difficult for him to take the time for what he called the "merely personal". And he really did seem to take refuge in these very complicated images in his head. Like Feynman, he challenged every idea that came to him. He wanted to rethink it, he wanted to see more deeply into it.

Why did you focus on Einstein's relationships with his two wives, Mileva and Elsa?

Plenty of his correspondence with colleagues was about the science that he was working so hard on. But I wanted to show the personal side of the discoveries and ruminations. For somebody with hair like that, he did awfully well with the women. At one point he couldn't decide whether to marry his second wife Elsa or her daughter Ilse, who wrote to a friend, "Albert refuses to take a position on this".

Will the play be performed again?

I don't know. It was like a high-energy experiment: we just let the actors collide with the material. Whatever particles came out of it we could observe for a short time, and now it has evaporated.

Interview by Jascha Hoffman, a writer based in New York.

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