In 2012, Water Mill’s Alan Alda began his annual Flame Challenge by asking scientists to explain, in terms an 11-year-old could understand, “What is a flame?”
The challenge is through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, an institution created to advance understanding of science among young people and layman. The center helps train scientists and health professionals to communicate with the public and media about their own discipline.
“The Flame Challenge has grown from scientists trying to answer the question of one 11-year old (me) from many decades ago, to tackling questions on the minds of thousands of current 11-year olds from around the world,” Alda said. “I’m in awe of the scientists who can bring clarity to these questions and I’m in awe of the kids who keep the scientists on their toes.”
In 2013 Alda posted the question on behalf of children, “What is time?” For 2014, the question selected out of submissions from 9- to 12-year-olds is “What is color?”
According to the Alda Center, it’s a fundamental question that can be answered from the perspective of physics, chemistry or psychology or from a geological or oceanographic perspective.
“We want scientists to think about how they can answer the question from their own field—from biology to physics to anthropology or psychology,” Alda Center Director Elizabeth Bass said.
Scientists have until March 1, 2014, to submit their answers in writing, video or graphics. The entries will be screened for scientific accuracy—and then judged by real 11-year-olds. In 2013, nearly 20,000 children from around the world registered through their schools to be judges. Visit flamechallenge.org for more information.
Here is Alda’s 2014 message to student judges: