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Dear Educator,

For ten years now, Scientific American Frontiers has partnered with America's science teachers in bringing science to students all over the country.

I've been with the program for six of those years and it makes me very proud to know I've been part of the work of tens of thousands of incredibly dedicated science teachers who have chosen to use our program and teaching guides like this one in their classrooms. Together, we've helped millions and millions of students learn about science. I feel part of something that has made a genuine contribution to education in our country.

It seems increasingly important to make sure that young people can comprehend the language of science and understand what scientists do and how they do it. For one thing, they may become scientists themselves one day. But even if they don't, they'll benefit science by being part of a population that understands the riches scientific work brings to our country.

A special contribution Scientific American Frontiers has made is in giving scientists a chance to be more accessible. This is important because as our understanding of nature deepens, scientists become more specialized and the language of science becomes more difficult for lay people to understand. And not just lay people.

A mathematician friend tells me he's hard at work on an article memorializing a colleague. He says, "My goal is to get other mathematicians to understand what he was trying to do in his research, which was powerful but forbiddingly technical." Apparently, even people in the same field can be excommunicated by the expansion of the universe of knowledge and the increasingly weakened signal of specialized language.

During these ten years, Scientific American Frontiers and the science teachers who have used it in their classrooms have brought clarity to some of science's most complex attempts to understand nature.

The program has also made a terrific contribution to my own education. It's been a wonderful intellectual (and sometimes physical) adventure for me to do the show. We've gone all over the world and talked with some of the smartest people on the planet. I've learned an enormous amount.

Sometimes, while handling snakes, catching sharks or letting a tarantula crawl around on my hand, I've had to assume a bravery I didn't really possess. But, at times, the producers of the show have had to be even braver.

When I joined the show six years ago, they took a chance in letting me interview scientists in an unscripted, freewheeling way. They didn't really know how that would work out -- but together, we've learned how to make it pay off for the viewer. The interviews allow me to exercise my curiosity and they let us use playfulness in the pursuit of understanding. Scientists are seen as the fully rounded people they are: smart, funny, creative and especially good at teaching. Our hope is that, if I keep asking questions until I actually begin to understand what a scientist is saying, the audience, seeing the light bulb go off in my head, might also get a spark.

To do this, though, I've had to learn to ask the dumb question -- the totally naive question. Before I learned to do this, my interviews began with my assuming that, after reading a couple of research papers, I knew a bit about the scientist's work. The conversation invariably revealed that I pretty much had it all wrong as we went down one blind alley after another. I realize now that assuming I know nothing is much safer and more accurate. It's been one of the best lessons I've learned doing the show.

Thank you for your support during these years -- and in the years to come. I can't wait to see what I'm going to learn next.


Alan Alda


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.