Soapbox Science

Am I Making Myself Clear?

Alan Alda, actor, director, writer, and founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, has had a lifelong interest in science. He hosted PBS’ Scientific American Frontiers from 1993 to 2005, an experience he has called “the best thing I ever did in front of a camera.” Considering his career – from M*A*S*H and The West Wing on television to an array of notable movie and theater roles – that’s quite an endorsement. After interviewing hundreds of scientists, Mr. Alda became convinced that many researchers have wonderful stories to tell, but some need help in telling them. Mr. Alda has played an active role in the Center for Communicating Science, starting the Flame Challenge last year, and leading workshops that use improvisational theater games to help scientists communicate more directly and personally. He was co-chair of the 2009 World Science Festival in New York City, hosted the 2010 documentary mini-series The Human Spark, and has written a play about the life of Marie Curie.

I probably learned the best lesson about talking in plain words from my youngest grandson. We were on vacation in the Virgin Islands, walking on a path that led to the strangest tree we had ever seen. The trunk was covered with angry looking thorns. I thought, wow, this is a great chance to talk with Matteo about how this tree might have come to look like this. So, we sat on the ground and had a wonderful exchange of ideas about evolution for 45 minutes. He was only 6 or 7, but he was taking in everything I told him.

The next day he was swimming with his cousin and asked her a question about science. She said, “Why don’t you ask your Grandpa about that?” And Matteo said, “I’m not makin’ that mistake again.”

Since then, I’ve tried not to make that mistake, either. I strive mightily now to talk as simply as possible (“but no simpler,” as Einstein is supposed to have said.) The trick, of course, is to be clear and engaging without oversimplifying. It’s hard, but it can be done. Speaking in plain words about the most complex things was something Richard Feynman did brilliantly.

I’ve often wanted to see this ability to talk about hard things in plain words spread, so last year I tried an experiment. I asked scientists to enter a challenging contest to explain what a flame is so that an 11-year-old could understand it. They would be judged by the ultimate authority: real 11-year-olds.

We launched The Flame Challenge through the Center for Communicating Science, which I had helped found at Stony Brook University, and it immediately caught the imagination of people from all over the world. Hundreds of entries came in from scientists in 31 countries and were judged by 6,000 kids from across the globe. This year, the Flame Challenge is sponsored by both the AAAS and the American Chemical Society.

But, as popular as the challenge became, I don’t think we realized what a tough task it would be to explain a flame in a few words. (I didn’t know, for instance, that Michael Faraday had taken several lectures to do it. And that was without getting into modern physics.) In spite of the difficulty, though, we got some wonderful answers. The winning entry was a spectacular animated video:

What is a Flame from Ben Ames on Vimeo.

This year’s question is even harder. It came from the 11-year-olds themselves and it’s a doozy: What is Time?

This one, I know, is hard, but I hope the difficulty only arouses scientists’ competitive instincts. You don’t have to attempt a definitive answer (there probably isn’t one, anyway). Just imagine – what would you answer if an 11-year-old looked up at you, eyes glinting with innocent curiosity and asked, “What is time?” There are many different angles you could come in on, probably ranging all the way from the perspectives of brain science to brane science.

But, keep in mind that it should be a scientific answer, communicated with clarity. It’s okay to be speculative, but speculation should be clearly labeled as such. And it’s okay to explore what we don’t know about time, as long as it encourages a child to want to know more.

I hope you’ll give it a try before the deadline of March 1st (Check out the rules at You might encourage an 11-year-old somewhere in the world (or hundreds of them) to begin a life of exploration, and  to start asking hard questions like this of nature herself.

And if turning a world of kids on to science isn’t motivation enough, just remember that the winner gets a free trip to New York to attend the World Science Festival, where we’ll announce the winning entry. And last year’s winner also got a commemorative tee shirt that I made myself on an ironing board. Are you motivated yet?

There are already more than 20,000 kids signed up to judge your entry. They’re looking up at you, wondering: What is time?

But, be careful. One of them is Matteo.


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