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.