As an 11-year-old boy, Alan Alda was mesmerized studying a candle flame. Finally, after hours of watching it flicker and dance, a question began to creep up from the back of his mind: What is this thing we call a flame? We can see the light it gives off, we can feel the heat, but what is it? In an attempt to find an answer to his question, young Alan Alda asked one of his teachers: What is a flame? And the teacher replied, “A flame is oxidation.”
It seemed that he would have to be satisfied with that explanation for the time being, but the question still haunted him, and decades later, Alda asked this same question to the scientific community, and thousands answered. The Flame Challenge was a call for scientists to improve upon “It’s oxidation” and explain to an 11-year-old child just exactly what a flame is.
On Friday afternoon, as part of the World Science Festival, Alda explained that the goal of such a challenge wasn’t to find the best explanation of a flame or even necessarily to teach kids what a flame is. Instead, Alda hoped to get scientists to seriously attempt to explain a complex idea in words that anyone can understand.
Scientists often get a bad rap for their communication skills. We’re accused of using technical jargon that no one can understand, being boring, and not being able to relate our research to everyday life. Scientists don’t often remember what it’s like to not know, and that can make it hard for them to explain something. Which is why Alda stressed the importance of establishing a personal connection with your audience, whether it be through telling stories or evoking emotion.
Scientists can have a hard time getting personal when discussing their science. Journal articles and scientific presentations are meant to take the scientist out of the data. The data should speak for themselves, and they should not be dependent on who collected them. But, for me, my favorite scientific presentations, and the ones that stick with me, are the ones that at least offer a glimpse of the frustrations as well as the triumphs of the path of research.
After discussing his own thoughts on science communication and sharing some of the insights from the 11-year-old judges of the flame challenge, Alda brought some of the finalists and honorable mentions from the flame challenge onto the stage.
All of the entrants had two things in common: they had all created amazing explanations of what a flame is, and none of them had any special expertise of what a flame is. Instead, they had a passion for communicating science and, as Frauenglass put it, for getting people to ask “why?”.
Check out the Flame Challenge finalists and winner here.
For more discussion on effective science communication and how scientists can interact with the public, check out our recent “Reaching Out” series on Soapbox Science.