Today a Slate article about Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge caught my attention. This was partly because years of watching lots of M.A.S.H. reruns on AFN as a child made me love Alan Alda, partly because it’s about getting kids more interested in science, and partly because this is one of those why on Earth didn’t anyone think of doing something like this before type of ideas.
The challenge is now a few years old and consists of coming up with a best way to explain a word or concept to an 11-year-old. This stems from a childhood experience Alan Alda had of asking “what is flame?” and getting unsatisfying answers. The kind of questions that at first glance seem easy, but then make you wonder how would you really explain that to a kid? The contest aims to give a really good, scientifically accurate, easily understandable answer to a posed question once per year – and it must be an answer that an 11-year-old can understand and will accept.
Scientists submit their explanations, a panel checks them for accuracy, and then actual students judge the entries. Answers can be in written, video, or graphic form. The contest rules are here.
The first year (2012), the question was “What is a flame?” Last year, it was “What is time?” This year it is “What is color?” The winning entries and finalists are then posted on the website – and they are simply wonderful.
Alan Alda’s Center for Communicating Science come about from his love of science and desires to make it easier for all people to communicate effectively and easily about science. His organization works with Stony Brook University and offers courses through their journalism program. The Flame Challenge is also sponsored by the American Chemistry Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, so it has some very well-respected scientific organizations behind it.
At this point, I’m guessing you’re dying to know what the best answers are to “What is a Flame?” and “What is Time?” Because you never know when your kid is going to ask! So here they are:
“What is a Flame?” Winner – Ben Ames. If this one doesn’t do it for you, you can also check out the What is a Flame?” finalists here, for some good alternative explanations.
What is Time? Written Winner – Nicholas Williams.
What is time? Have you ever heard your parents say to you that it’s time to go to bed or time to get up, time to go to school, time to clean your room, time to do this, time to do that, and on and on. Our world runs on a time schedule, and the schedule is so tight that there are schedules for everything we do throughout the day and clocks that tell you what time it is so we can do those things at the correct time. Time is so obvious in our lives that no one questions it. It’s just there, we have to live with it, and so we accept it. All activity on earth is based on time, and this time is what happened a second ago, a minute ago, an hour ago, days ago, and years ago. Well, now we have an important question. What is it? Time has a lot of definitions; like time is history or time is age. But, have we ever considered a good definition? I have. Here’s my definition. And no, I did not get this from some book or online. It’s just something that makes sense to me. I think of time as Forward Movement. Think about it! Everything moves forward, from the universe to every second of your life. And because everything moves forward, man developed a way to keep track of this Forward Movement and called it time. Man also invented clocks to keep a precise log of this Forward Movement in years, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and even parts of seconds. I’ll always continue to think of time as Forward Motion. I’ll also think of it as a Forward Motion that will never change, will never stop, and can never be reversed.
“What is Time?” Visual Category Winner – Steven Maguire
And the “What is Time” finalists can be found here.
The best answer to “What is Color?” will have to wait until the winning entry is announced in June.