What Is Energy? Alan Alda—and a Bunch of Kids—Want to Know

10:06 minutes

Alan Alda, at Science Friday's 25th Anniversary Gala. Credit: Peter Reitzfeld
Alan Alda, at Science Friday’s 25th Anniversary Gala. Credit: Peter Reitzfeld

Five years ago Alan Alda started the “Flame Challenge,” an effort to encourage scientists to communicate clearly by tasking them with explain scientific concepts to a panel of 11-year-old judges. This year the competition is heating up with the question: What is energy?

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: OK, scientists, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and start thinking like an 11-year-old, because it’s this year’s flame challenge time. And I can give you a hint. This year, things are heating up. Is that revealing too much? I hope not. But with me to discuss this year’s flame challenge question is a good friend of Science Friday, Alan Alda. You know him in his acting life. But he is also the founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Welcome back. Always good to see you.

ALAN ALDA: Thanks, Ira. It’s great to be here again.

So remind us for those of us who don’t know what the flame challenge is. What is it?

ALAN ALDA: The flame challenge is a challenge I posed to scientists about five years ago, where I said I didn’t understand what a flame was when I was 11 years old. And I asked the teacher what’s a flame? What’s going on in there? It’s so interesting looking. I don’t know anything else that looks like that. And she said that’s oxidation. And that’s all she told me.

So decades later, many decades later, I said to scientists how about a little playful experiment? How about if you answer the question what is a flame. But answer it so that an 11-year-old will not only understand it, but be engaged by it. Be a little entertained by it. But tell the truth. Be accurate. Just be clear. Don’t dumb it down, don’t be condescending, don’t leave out the essence of it.

And since then, we’ve changed the question each year. What is color? What is time? Some really tough questions. And this year the question we’re asking scientists to make clear to 11-year-olds is what is energy?

IRA FLATOW: Whoa. That’s a wide boat.

ALAN ALDA: Covers a lot of ground. So I hope that scientists no matter what discipline they’re in, because no matter what discipline you’re in, energy plays a part I would think. No matter what discipline they’re in, they can come at it maybe primarily from their discipline and try to give a sense of what energy is in a broader way. You know what’s interesting about this to me.

I posed this question to scientists. I gave them this challenge hoping it would be an interesting experience for them, hoping it would be an interesting experience for them to see if they could make something complex clear to an 11-year-old. It was really for the scientists. What I found out was there were thousands upon thousands of kids throughout the world who really enjoyed this and enjoyed learning from it.

In fact, last year one classroom said to their teacher I wish we could learn everything this way. And here’s what I think the clue is that a girl called Julia [INAUDIBLE]– I don’t know if I’m pronouncing your name right– asked the question what is energy? And we picked up on that question. And she said this interesting thing. It’s a very complicated question. She said she had been a judge last year. And she said, I learned from the flame challenge that it’s important to use numerous sources to really understand the question being discussed. Because that’s how I learned. I really resonate with that.

When I’m interviewing a scientist and I hear about that scientist’s work from just one direction, they come in on one angle, I don’t really get it. If they come in on two or three different angles, you kind of give me a chance to triangulate, then I can get it. So a classroom that’s judging these entries from scientists trying to explain energy, they’re going to get five or six entries each classroom. They’re going to discuss them. But they’ll all come from different directions, because it’s different people, different people explaining it.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s one of the unique things about the flame challenge is that it’s judged by the 11-year-old.

ALAN ALDA: That’s the thing. I missed that just now. Yeah, you’re right. Everybody loves that, especially the kids. You know, for a kid to be able to say to a scientist that’s a very good answer, but it could be a little better. And they are very serious about the way they discuss these decisions they’re going to make.

IRA FLATOW: And how many kids actually do the judging?

ALAN ALDA: Well, last year, I think we had 27,000 kids all around the world– Australia, China, India, New Zealand, Thailand, many all over the world. And this is so nice to take part in. Just before the final vote– I think a day before the final vote– we do on the internet what we call a worldwide assembly. And I talk to 10 classrooms and we see them on the screen. And the kids get up to the mic and the camera, and they discuss with one another across the world what was good about an entry, what could have been better. I love to tell that story. I must have said it a couple of times here about one kid who said you know it’s OK to be funny, but you don’t have to be silly. He said after all, we’re 11. We’re not 7.

IRA FLATOW: No I hadn’t heard that before. We’re 11, we’re not 7. Don’t treat us like a 7-year-old.

ALAN ALDA: It makes a big difference at that age, you know. And they’re very aware of the value of humor. They’re very good at picking up on what makes good communication. This surprised me. And I’m only talking about what’s the best entry. But what makes a good entry? They would discuss it and say oh, he gave good examples. It was good he used humor, but that kid thought the humor was silly. They have real distinctions that they make that are very, very thoughtful. And it’s very reassuring to hear these kids discuss these entries.

IRA FLATOW: And how can scientists who want to enter this–

ALAN ALDA: I hope that they eat it–

IRA FLATOW: How do they do that?

ALAN ALDA: All they have to do is go to flamechallenge.org and teachers who want to sign their classrooms can go to flamechallenge.org. And the deadline for the scientists to enter the contest is early February– the first couple of days in February. They have some time, but you remember the first entrant who didn’t hear about the contest until he heard your podcast– Science Friday podcast– and he was in Austria? And he had two weeks before the deadline was up.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t know how he got that done. It’s such a gorgeous–

ALAN ALDA: Oh, it’s a wonderful piece. He drew a cartoon. He wrote a scenario. He acted in it. He wrote a song and sang it. Amazing in two weeks.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI– public radio international talking with Alan Alda about his new flame challenge, which is energy.

ALAN ALDA: What is energy?

IRA FLATOW: What is energy? And you could say it’s energy that you have to do work. It could be energy from electricity. As you say, it could come in so many different directions. You can approach it any way you want to.

ALAN ALDA: And how can you sort of tie those things together? There’s two ways to do it, by the way. Scientists submit videos of one kind or another– short videos– or a short statement, short written piece. And we used to say you could submit either one and one of those would win a prize, but the kids loved the videos so much that we had to break it into two winning categories.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. And if teachers want their classrooms to get involved in the judging, how did they do that?

ALAN ALDA: They go to flamechallenge.org and they find out– they get an entry form. And they sign up their whole class. And I hope we get lots of teachers, but I really want to get more scientists on board. It’s a real challenging thing to do. And it’s not as easy as it appears. So take it and it turns out– like Ben Ames, our first winner, really devoted himself to it. He wound up getting well known for it around the world. He got offered a job making videos for a children’s science program.


ALAN ALDA: So I mean, you really can go someplace with this. You can– explaining science, explore communicating science in a fun way.

IRA FLATOW: And I can’t let you go without talking about your communications program at Stony Brook. Going well?

ALAN ALDA: Oh, yeah. Very well. We just started an affiliation with the National University of Australia. I’m probably going to get Scotland online soon. It’s all over the country. And I’m very touched by how when we see scientists or doctors or nurses learn to communicate better, to see them sometimes in a few days reach a new level that they hadn’t expected to reach, it’s really wonderful to see. Because as you know, we do this innovative thing. We teach them improvisation, which puts them in contact with the person they’re trying to communicate with. That’s the main reason for it, not to make them funny or anything like that.

And I’m starting a new company that will provide these services to corporations. We’re working on women in business, a workshop for them. And all the money that the company makes goes to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook.

IRA FLATOW: Good for you. Let’s give out the URL for the flame challenge again, if people want to get involved.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you. flamechallenge.org. And there’s also another one– the Alda Kavli Learning Center, which has wonderful information for people wanting to communicate better. That might be fun to look at too.

IRA FLATOW: Well, next time.

ALAN ALDA: Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for all the help you’ve given us.

ALAN ALDA: It’s great to see you.

IRA FLATOW: Alan Alda, actor, screenwriter, and also the founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. It’s this year’s flame challenge. If you don’t go to Alan’s site, we have it online at our website at sciencefriday.com, and we’ll link you right over to it.

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