Alda Issues Challenge To Explain Flames To Grade Schoolers
March 25, 2012

Alda Issues Challenge To Explain Flames To Grade Schoolers

An ongoing contest at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism's Center for Communicating Science is seeking entries that explain exactly what a flame is in such a way that older grade-school children can grasp the concept and understand just what the process is all about.

The contest, which was the brainchild of actor, writer, and Center for Communicating Science board member Alan Alda, runs through April 2 and is an attempt to make science "more approachable," Center director Elizabeth Bass told the university's paper, The Statesman, last Monday.

As of that time, the group had received more than 300 entries, not just from the US but from the UK, Australia, India, Brazil, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia as well. They are also reportedly seeking 10,000 11-year-old students to serve as judges for the contest, and schools interested in doing so can apply from the organization's official website.

Why 11-year-olds? Because that was the age Alda was when he had a disappointing encounter with a teacher that ultimately served as the inspiration for what has been dubbed the "Flame Challenge."

"I was 11 and I was curious. I had been thinking for days about the flame at the end of a candle. Finally, I took the problem to my teacher. 'What's a flame?' I asked her. 'What's going on in there?' There was a slight pause and she said, 'It's oxidation.' She didn't seem to think there was much else to say," he wrote in a guest editorial in the journal Science earlier this month.

"Deflated, I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name," Alda added. "That was a discouraging moment for me personally, but decades later I see the failure to communicate science with clarity as far more serious for society. We feel the disconnect all around us, from a common misimpression that evolution is the theory that we're descended from monkeys, to the worry that physicists in Geneva might suck the universe into a teacup -- or something uncomfortably smaller."

According to New York Times blogger Andrew C. Revkin, Alda has "long been a student and communicator of science, first through the Scientific American Frontiers TV program and now as a coach and mentor to scientists eager to convey their work to the public," so his involvement with the contest should not be much of a surprise.

The former MASH star's goal, according to the Flame Challenge's website, is to find an answer to the question that a student of that age "would find intelligible and maybe even fun."

Once all the entries submitted to the Long Island, New York-based university are judged, the winner will be "publicized at the World Science Festival in New York in June," Revkin wrote earlier this month.

"What we are interested in is clarity in establishing the channel between two humans that occurs when socialization happens," Alda said in a press conference, according to The Statesman. "Then I realized in the middle of all that“¦ wait a minute, it would be fun to extend this connection, this personal connection with the reader even further and say to the reader ℠No, I mean this, really think about this, how would you explain it to me if I were an 11-year-old asking you this question?´"