Alan Alda attacks science jargon in "Flame Challenge," a science communications contest for young people (video)

In this PBS NewsHour segment, science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on a contest launched by actor and author Alan Alda that challenges scientists to explain the science behind a flame, while flexing their communication muscles. The judges are thousands of 11-year-olds.

Below, the winning video entry: "What is a Flame," by Ben Ames, a quantum physicist working on his doctorate at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. I loved it, but more importantly, so did the kids.

From Miles' blog post about his story for the NewsHour:

In 1947, an 11-year old Alan Alda asked his teacher that question and got a non-response: “oxidation” – thus ensuring young Alan would continue on his career path of acting instead of taking a turn toward science.

His teacher might have been too busy, but in all likelihood, didn’t really know the answer. I sure didn’t before I started working on my story for the NewsHour on the Flame Challenge. In fact, one of the few things I knew about flames was they burn in a sphere in the absence of gravity (no convection without it).

I felt bad about this until I met the winner, Ben Ames. Ben is a quantum physicist working on his doctorate at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. When he heard about the Flame Challenge, he became immediately intrigued, but he also did what all Dads hoping to maintain their superpower luster do these days; he immediately went to Wikipedia to try and figure out what the heck a flame is anyway.

So don’t feel bad, fellow humanities majors. The problem with the Wikipedia entry is that it’s tough sledding for an 11-year-old – and for those who stopped learning science when they were eleven.

In the video above, NewsHour host Hari Sreenivasan talks with Miles (in my living room, heh!) about the "Flame Challenge" contest.

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    1. Vamp! Vamp! We got another 7 minutes and 24 seconds to fill! :D

      Actually I guess it would be not a glowing gas, but a suspension of glowing soot particles in a gas would be an aerosol or particulate.

  1. Ben Ames’  explanation was good, but I think he also should have explained the shape of the candle flame (at least the hot gases rising because they’re less dense) and how it’s different without gravity. Explaining the dark area inside the flame would have been good, too and quick to do – the vaporizing fuel displaces air in that area, and without both air and fuel there is no combustion (a useful word he failed to introduce, instead teaching “chemiluminescence” , which kids may well never come across again, even if they get science degrees).

    1. The shape of a flame, including the inner dark area, seems intuitive to me – granted, I am not 11 and I am a scientist myself :) 

      If we want to get pedantic, addressing those sorts of issues is not even within the literal scope of the question – and neither is combustion, while chemiluminescence certainly is.

      The video succeeds at being very technical and specific in scope – like a scientific paper is – while being very easy to understand. And not dumbed down, like most science stuff for kids is. And just like a technical scientific paper, you can’t just read one and expect to understand everything about the topic. A second video could easily explain the shape of flames, combustion, etc. but none of those are “what” questions those are “why” questions.

      Skipping over the difficult bits, such as your suggestion of leaving out chemiluminescence to focus on combustion, is what makes most science education as bad as it is. It gives a false sense of complete understanding and is not likely to prompt the student to come up with further questions to answer.

  2. I didn’t really have a good feel for fire and its shape until I saw it modeled as a fluid rising in another fluid using the kind of computer animation software popular in the visual effects industry. That was the mysterious part to me when I was a kid: its shape.

  3. Ben would better be described as a “graduate student in quantum physics” rather than a quantum physicist. Only with a doctorate in hand can we be assured that he has vanquished the snake.

  4. How about a followup with explanations of why there is a tidal bulge on the side of earth nearest the moon and also one on the farthest side. Most texts I’ve seen do a quick doubletalk tap dance and explain nothing.

    1.  The highly simplified version is basically that the tide facing the moon is from water being pulled up over the earth by the moon’s gravity, and the tide opposite is caused by the moon pulling the earth down under the water.

  5. Texas must be in an uproar, doesn’t this require critical thinking skills?

    In Texas, I guess the answers to any question about what a flame is or does would probably contain Sin, Satan, Hell, and the most popular being, “Go ask your parents”. And the teacher who answered “I don’t know, just don’t play with it,”  would get a raise. Finally, the teacher who answers “It’s for lighting cigarettes” is on some   tobacco company’s  pay roll.

  6. In the last video, I keep wanting Miles to duck just so I can get a good look at the contents of the bookshelves.  Assuming Miles doesn’t regularly broadcast from your living room, Xeni… is there some epic collaborative project in the works? I mean, more epic than usual?

    1. I think that she and Miles are an item :)  Seems like he’s been by her side a lot during the whole chemo and surgery ordeal.  I think they’re dating, in other words.  I hope so!  She deserves a fantastic guy like Miles.  He was one of my favourites when he was on CNN.

  7. It’s a question folks have asked for ages, and some others have answered it well to kids of their own era.  One of the best was Michael Faraday, in his Christmas Lectures of 1848 and later published as a book. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chemical_History_of_a_Candle

    p.s. Love that Xeni’s post for this was at π time (3.14)

  8. What Alan has started is great but does this video give the student all the information to answer the question “What is a flame”, they have been given information regarding why a candle flame produces heat and light but would they be able to explain burning magnesium using the information contained in the video? 

    What are the attributes of all flames? I think a presentation needs to address the fundimentals of a flame, not the chemistry of a particular flame.  Im not a scientist but Ive witnessed a flame burn without emitting light. Should a flame be explained as an area of statistic probabilities then add particular chemical or physical details onto that foundation? 

    Its great to involve the kids in judging but are they only judging the entertainment value of the video? Would fart jokes and vampires be more appealing to kids but possibly hide or cloud over the educational value.  Im sure Alan looked at this but I dont think the winning entry answers the question “What is a flame?”.

    I applaud what Alan and participants are doing, I hope the next question is “How does gravity work”, Im sick of it bringing me down.

    1. What Alan has started is great but does this video give the student all the information to answer the question “What is a flame”, they have been given information regarding why a candle flame produces heat and light but would they be able to explain burning magnesium using the information contained in the video?

      When teaching someone how to program a computer for the first time, do you consider it a failure if they don’t start with a multi-threaded application with properly implemented semaphores, or is “Hello World!” a good place start?

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