Alan Alda’s Challenge to Scientists

Posted January 4th, 2013 at 11:47 pm (UTC-4)

Professor Alan Alda (Photo: Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University)

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)

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)

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 to communicate more effectively. (Photo: Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University)

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.

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Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

9 responses to “Alan Alda’s Challenge to Scientists”

  1. Maureen says:

    fulminate of
    mercury, thus fulfilling Babalon’s prophecy that he would “become
    living flame”.

    from Maureen’s post a couple years ago!topic/alt.religion.scientology/QJEHp3MTqpQ

    and recent insight perhaps bridging a tech gap…….discovering some freedom.
    (The day my parents took me to see the real MASH and Patton at the Will Rogers Theatre in Chicago, IL our family of four were the only ones that night. Except one other man who came in and fell asleep, started snoring.

    Maureen (temporarrily in Georgia)
    a/k/a present on
    Hugh huh hugg huga Anne Grace

  2. john says:

    Time is a mechanical recording of cause and effect. Cause and effect are forever in flux. There is no fundamental first cause. For a mind that remains in each moment, time, or cause and effect, does not exist.

  3. Rob Swift says:

    Time, light, life are the same thing. Time acts on the material world and has the characteristic that it cannot be got back.

  4. Joe Ferraro says:

    Time is nothing more than the measurement of change

  5. sean says:

    time is a vessel, in it sits the universe, it shrinks as it deteriorates and so too, everything else; people, planets, and suns, they are all born and die in this space and when time ends, the universe and all it contains return to that single point that we call the big bang.

  6. debbie colloca says:


  7. ricardo says:

    Time is a measure of life, it have a begining and an end, goes for the present to the future if there are not external forces that can reverse, for God time is eternal

  8. Carl Weidert says:

    In order to answer the question of what time is we have to decide what differentiates the known somethings from absolute nothing, the null hypothesis. Only when we answer this can we understand time. The presence or absence of motion is the answer.

    From pure motionwe can create an intuitive model where the way motion moves creates fields,electromagnetic spectrum and matter. A motion glop steered like a carwith the steering wheel held in one position will move in a closed circle. Changing the position of the steering wheel will make fields of larger or smaller circles. Steer the glop with two perpendicular steering controles like an airplane makes the plane move in a helical spiral as do light particles. Add a third perpendicular, advanced tactical fighter, and matter is made by the motion glop when the spiral folds back on itself and moves in a closed volume. The different motion glops or motion particles would make the different particles of physics. The matter motion particles first make quarks and electrons which at the next level make protons and neutrons, then atoms and molecules, which make the things that we can see and are familiar to us.

    Welook at time as the interval of how far something moves or how its position changes. At the primary level described above the motion particle is what first moves and makes these objects, which then can move. Time can now can be understood and defined as motion moving.

    Primary motion has the property of never being able to stop as it would then become absolute nothing. This means that any motion particle can not retrace the exact path previously traveled and thus go backwards in time. This is why there is a forward arrow of time.

    An eight and a quarter page paper titled Motion as a Means to UNify Fields, Forces. Matter Quantum mechanics, Relativity and Thermodynamics an Intuitive Model is available upon request.

  9. Francis Cheok says:

    Time is the human measurement of intervals of the earth’s motion.