Alan Alda Wants To Peel Open Your Brain

From hosting Scientific American Frontiers to writing a play based on Einstein's letters, Alan Alda is a true geek. We caught up with him to find out about his exploration of the human brain for PBS, called The Human Spark.

Many don't realize that Alda has a geeky side. Known for his 11 year story arc on M*A*S*H, the actor has always been fascinated with science. He's been lucky enough to entertain that side of his life by serving on the board of the World Science Festival and hosting the now defunct Scientific American Frontiers for 12 years.

While he hasn't starred in any science-based films (yet), Alda did act the part of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in the play QED in 2001. Explaining his lack of science fiction on his resume, Alda tells io9, "Nothing's been offered to me that looked really interesting." Are you listening, Hollywood?

"I used to read science fiction a lot and I still like it if it's a model of how we really are, so we can see ourselves from another perspective," Alda continues. "The thing is that I read so much science, much more than I do fiction, because to me, science in itself is a great detective story that's happening in front of us. I don't get as involved with science fiction, except as it tries to help me understand who we are, because the greatest frontier in science is to understand humanity itself."

In a quest to learn more about that very subject, Alda and the folks at PBS take a look at what makes us human in a three-part series premiering on January 6th. The Human Spark, a three-part miniseries, sends Alda to three continents as he talks with archaeologists and scientists about our evolution and how we differ from Neandrathals, apes, and other animals.

"We often start off with these great divides," Alda explains. "We say, we're the only ones that cry. We're the only ones that laugh. We're the only ones that build skyscrapers. And little by little, as we've explored this, I've begun to see some of these lines blur and disappear in certain cases. What my interviews with scientists, being out in the field with these animals, and taking part in these experiments has done, is I've personally started to feel more connected to these other animals and see some of the roots of my behavior."

Alda went so far as to have his brain scanned at MIT's McGovern Institute, but it wasn't the first time he's done so. Turns out the producers at Scientific American Frontiers have made Alda get his head examined a few times already. While the brain scans in this instance were done to show what areas scientists think are uniquely human, technicians at MIT noted that they wouldn't have been able to guess Alda's age based on his brain scans — his noggin looks a few years younger! "I've carried that along with me for a while now," Alda laughs. "It cheers me up."

Alda's big question, which has yet to be answered involves our future as a species. "Scientists have told me that the average lifespan of a species is about two million years. We've only been here a fraction of that so far. Do we have a chance of having an average existence on earth? Can you picture us here a million years from now. What would we be like? What destruction will we be capable of? I hope we learn more about ourselves and that this series makes its own small contribution to that."

The Human Spark premieres on January 6th on PBS. Check local listings for times.