Alan Alda Wants To Know: ‘What Is Climate?’

6:59 minutes

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

How do you explain something as diffuse and complicated as climate change to kids? Why not start with a simpler concept: What is climate? That’s this year’s Flame Challenge question, where every year scientists test their communication skills in front of a group of third grade judges. Veteran actor and expert science communicator Alan Alda joins Ira to discuss this year’s theme.

Segment Guests

Alan Alda

Alan Alda is an actor and writer. He’s also the host of the Clear + Vivid podcast, and founder of the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And it’s that time of the year again. No, I’m not talking about the holiday season. It’s the annual Flame Challenge competition, which a group of scientists are asked to explain one simple concept, like the original idea, what is a flame?

The catch is that the judges are all approximately 11 years old. They’re third graders. It’s a test of the scientists’ communication skills. And we have the originator of the Flame Challenge, an expert science communicator himself in the studio with us today to announce publicly for the first time this year’s Flame Challenge question. Welcome back to the show, Alan Alda.

ALAN ALDA: Hi, Ira. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Thanks. Nice to have you.

ALAN ALDA: OK. So this year the kids have been asking this question, or questions very much like it, since we started seven years ago. And the question is, what is climate?

IRA FLATOW: Wow. A lot of people get that wrong, don’t they?

ALAN ALDA: And even if you got it right, how do you explain it so that an 11-year-old is engaged by your answer and it’s an accurate answer and gives them both something they didn’t know and the desire to know more?

IRA FLATOW: Well, just to illustrate how difficult that answer is, we went to some of the best science communicators that we know, and that’s our staff. And we asked them how they would explain what it is. And here’s what they had to say.

FEMALE SPEAKER: OK. Hold it. Let me think for a second.

What is climate? I mean, the climate is the weather every single day of the year, over many years. So if it rains one day, that’s the weather. But if it rains every day in May, that’s the climate.


FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s like one LEGO block versus the whole LEGO building, or like the Statue of Liberty built out of LEGOs. Weather is one LEGO, whereas climate is the whole structure. Is it going to rain today? Is it going to be 68 degrees and I can wear my shorts, or is it going to be a pants day? That’s weather.

So I guess, like, do I live in a pants region or a shorts region, would be, like, something about the climate of where I live. Does that make any sense? It’s like the environment of the– I don’t want to say air.

Yeah, the environment of the air. This is terrible. I can’t say any more. It’s getting worse.

IRA FLATOW: But see how difficult that is.

ALAN ALDA: It is. And that’s a wonderful springboard for the Flame Challenge because it really challenges scientists in every field to see if they can come up with an answer that hits the mark, that has snap to it, that doesn’t use jargon, that appeals to a real 11-year-old. And it’s a real challenge. It’s hard to do.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Alan Alda about this year’s Flame Challenge. And you’re looking for scientists, right–


IRA FLATOW: –to join in.

ALAN ALDA: Yeah. Over the years, in the seven years we’ve been doing it–

IRA FLATOW: Seven years already?

ALAN ALDA: Isn’t that amazing–


ALAN ALDA: –that we’ve had, I guess, a couple of 100,000 kids from all over the world and a lot of different countries judging this contest. And we didn’t realize what a boon it would be to kids in an educational way. But the whole idea always was to help scientists have the experience of taking on what seems like an easy task– oh, I’m going to tell an 11-year-old what this is. It turns out to be very difficult.

And it’s deeply instructive if you can actually tackle it and achieve something. So the more scientists– we’ve had a few thousand scientists over the years. I’d like to get a few thousand in one lump now, so we’re making a real push to get more scientists involved.

IRA FLATOW: OK. We have a few listening, I think. So tell us, if you’re a scientist, how you would join up.

ALAN ALDA: Well, a good idea is to go to Flamechallenge.org. And you can register on December 18th, both schools can register their kids and scientists can register to send in an entry. But before that, there are warm-up exercises you can do. We’re really trying to get some more help in this process.

For instance, we have webinars, three webinars that are going to start in a couple of weeks. And one is, what is an 11-year-old? So we–

IRA FLATOW: That’s a tough question.

ALAN ALDA: We have interviews with 11-year-olds. And we try to get the scientist in a position to sort of frame in their mind who they’re talking to. What’s going on in that mind? Because if you don’t have that as a starting point, you’re just sort of blasting it out there and you have a lower chance of getting into their head with it.

And one of our previous winners will be on the video giving some tips and that kind of thing. Then the next one is a webinar devoted to a game that will help you rid yourself of jargon. I think it’s called The Jargon Police.

IRA FLATOW: We could use those around here.

ALAN ALDA: And the third video is dedicated to the idea of making it snap. How can you say it so it really clicks in my head? And we have limits on the amount of time you have.

You have only a few hundred words or a few minutes. I forget the exact– I have to look at the website myself. We’ve changed the rules a couple of times.

IRA FLATOW: And the website again? Give out the website.

ALAN ALDA: Yeah. Flamechallenge– that’s easy. Flamechallenge.org.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s easy to remember.

ALAN ALDA: And another warm-up exercise we have, which is really catching on I think on social media, which is to say something about your work in science just as a warm-up, not about answering, what is climate? But just about your work in science. Say it in a haiku and see if you can engage people with some aspect of your work. And if you do that on, say, Twitter, include a link, if you will, to Flamechallenge.org, because you’re going to appeal to other scientists to get on board and take part in that competition, even if it’s just the haiku part of it. That may draw them into the Flame Challenge.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ll see if we can now help launch the Flame Challenge, as we have every year.

ALAN ALDA: You’ve been so great with that. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: We’re very happy to help you.

ALAN ALDA: Our first winner, who made that spectacular video, only knew about this because he heard about it in a podcast from Science Friday.

IRA FLATOW: And there you have it. What a great curtain call for that. Alan Alda, Alan Alda, you all know who Alan Alda is. The Flame Challenge this year at Flamechallenge.org.

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