Actor Alan Alda to Scientists: Explain Yourselves

Actor Alan Alda wants scientists to explain: What is a flame? And he wants it done so 11-year-olds can understand.
Alan Alda asked scientists to explain: What is a flame? (Image credit: Shutterstock)

As an 11-year-old, future actor Alan Alda asked his teacher a burning question: "What is a flame?"

He found the response he received — "It's oxidation" — unsatisfying.

Sixty-five years later, Alda sees science plagued by the same failure to communicate clearly, with serious implications.

"We feel the disconnect all around us, from a common misimpression that evolution is the theory that we're descended from monkeys, to the worry that physicists in Geneva might suck the universe into a tea cup — or something uncomfortably smaller," Alda writes, referring to unsubstantiated fears the Large Hadron Collider, used to study subatomic particles, might create a black hole. 

As a founding member of the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science, Alda challenges scientists to do a better job answering his much younger self's question, in an editorial in the Friday (March 2) issue of the journal Science. His challenge opens a month-long contest whose entries — in writing, video or graphics —are to be judged by 11-year-olds. Entries are being taken at The Flame Challenge website.

The center is also looking for some brave, or just curious, 11-year-olds to serve as panel judges.

"Would you be willing to have a go at writing your own explanation of what a flame is — one that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun?" Alda writes.

Kids' burning questions are often trickier to answer than may seem at first pass, just like the "what is a flame" question. In fact, a recent survey of 2,000 parents with kids ages 5 to 16 conducted in the United Kingdom revealed the five most common questions kids ask their parents. They include questions such as (from most to least popular) "Why is the moon sometimes out during the day?", "Why is the sky blue?", "Will we ever discover aliens?", "How much does the Earth weigh?" and "How do airplanes stay up?"

Perhaps fortunately for parents, the study scientists also came up with easy-to-understand answers.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.