Professor Alan Alda (Photo: Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University)
Alan Alda, the internationally famous TV/movie actor, director and writer, is looking for answers to a question we’ve all pondered at some point in our lives – what is time? So he recently issued a challenge to the world’s scientists to come up with a good explanation.
While the question alone might stump even the brightest of scientists, Alda’s challenge also has a catch. The explanation must be made so that an 11-year-old can easily understand it.
Science World recently spoke with Alan Alda to learn more about his challenge. He told us that when he was just 11 years old, he found himself becoming quite fascinated with the flame burning at the end of a candle.
Curious about what a flame was, Alda decided to ask his teacher – “what’s a flame?” He was hoping for a clear and concise answer to his question, but the teacher instead came back at him with just a one word answer – oxidation.
Needless to say, young Alan was quite dissatisfied with his teacher’s answer and was frustrated that he still didn’t know what a flame was.
In spite of the teacher’s terse answer to his query, Alda continued to have a lifelong interest in science.
While he’s best known for playing the wisecracking surgeon Dr. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, M.D. on the classic TV show M*A*S*H, Alda also hosted the TV series “Scientific American Frontiers” that aired on the U.S. public television network PBS.
Throughout the course of hosting that TV show, Alda said that he had the chance to interview hundreds of scientists. In doing so, he discovered that many of the scientists he spoke with had wonderful stories to tell, but some needed help in telling them.
Alda also concludes that the scientists themselves are recognizing that they need to become better communicators, and that there are three big groups of people that need to be communicated with better.
What is time??? (Image: The Flame Challenge/Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University)
The first group is the general public. Alda says the public needs to have a clear understanding of science because they’re using it every day. And because they may not quite understand it, he says people aren’t asking the right questions and sometimes that creates barriers to better science.
The second group of people, according to Alda, includes legislators and policy makers. “They routinely don’t understand what the scientists are asking funding for; they don’t understand it at a deep enough level anyway,” he said.
The third group that Alda said can really benefit from better science communication is that of fellow scientists — those who sometimes aren’t familiar with scientific disciplines other than their own. “So that’s holding back collaboration, I would think, holding back new inroads that can be made because an awful lot of things happening now, that are breaking ground, require the collaboration of a lot of people from a lot of different fields,” Alda said.
So to help scientists and health professionals develop the skills needed to become effective communicators, Alda helped create the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, where he is also a visiting professor.
His passion for communicating science to others also came through while writing a guest editorial for the journal Science.
“I realized that I had a personal story to tell about communicating science and it was that story about my teacher not really explaining the flame very well. And then I realized by the end of the article that I had a contest and I challenged scientists to come up with an explanation an 11-year-old could understand.”
1972 photo of Alan Alda as the wisecracking but loveable Dr. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce on the TV series M*A*S*H. (Photo: CBS Television [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
That challenge wound up being the first in what Alda and his colleagues at the Stony Brook University have called “The Flame Challenge.”
From over 800 entries submitted, 31-year-old Ben Ames, an American studying for his Ph.D in Austria, won the first “Flame Challenge” last year with his animated video explanation of “What is a flame?”
A couple of weeks ago, Alda issued his second “Flame Challenge.” The question this time came from actual 11 year-old students. Like the first “Flame Challenge” question, this one also is very basic – but it’s also quite perplexing and one that might be difficult for scientists to explain to the young students. The question: “What is time?”
According to the “Flame Challenge” website, entries can either be written, or in video or graphic forms.
Scientists competing in the “Flame Challenge” have till 0459 UTC March 2, 2013, to get their entries in. The judging will be done by thousands of 11-year-olds.
Alda says that judging the contest has been a big hit with the young scientists of the future. “They really love the chance to take a serious position in deciding what’s a good explanation and they are very serious about it,” he said.
While the “Flame Challenge” question alone could be difficult to answer, why does the explanation have to be understood by 11-year-olds in particular?
“It just happened that way, because I was 11 when I asked that question,” explained Alda. “It turns out that, as we look at 11-year-olds who are judging it, it seems they have a kind of special ability, they’re in a special place in their lives where they still have the curiosity, a sort of unbridled curiosity of a kid, but they’re beginning to take on the critical thinking of an adult, so they’re in a good position to both asked the question and judge the answer,” he said.
Professor Alda helps scientists communicate more effectively. (Photo: Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University)
Videos of the youngsters reviewing answers that were submitted for last year’s challenge revealed just how serious they were about their judging duties. “They say things like, ‘this is too short, it doesn’t have enough information,’” Alda said. “And one kid was great, he said that ‘we like them if they’re entertaining, but this is silly.’ He said that ‘We’re 11, not seven,’ and I loved that very grown up approach to this old question.”
Schools around the world can also take part in the “Flame Challenge” by getting their 11-year-old students involved with judging.
For details on how scientists can take on the challenge, and how 11-year-olds can become judges, just visit the “Flame Challenge” website.
Alan Alda joins us this weekend on the radio edition of Science World. He talks about the “Flame Challenge” and why it’s important for scientists to be good communicators. For broadcast times please check the right column.
You can listen below to hear the full Science World interview with Alan Alda.