Alan Alda Asks: 'What Is Time?'

We've come a long way towards work being 'a thing that you do,' rather than 'a place that you go.'
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Actor Alan Alda has a question for scientists around the world. He wants to know what time is.

Oh, and he wants the explanation in words an 11-year-old would understand.

Alda, known for his roles on the television show "M*A*S*H" and "The West Wing," has turned his interest toward science communication as a founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. Last year, he challenged scientists to answer the question "What is flame?"

That query was inspired by a question Alda himself asked a teacher as an 11-year-old boy. The answer he received at the time — "oxidation" — meant nothing to him, so he launched the Flame Challenge last year to get a better answer. The winner of the contest, University of Innsbruck physics doctoral student Ben Ames, made a song and video to explain the concept.

This year, Alda and the Center for Communicating Science crowdsourced questions from today's 11-year-olds. When they got a number of queries about time, time travel and the beginning of time, they decided to distill the question into a deceptively simply one: What is time?

"They're asking a very deep question this year (What is Time?!)," Alda wrote on the Center's website. "It's going to be fun to see how scientists around the world answer that one in everyday language."

Scientists are welcomed to send in their responses by March 1, 2013, using video, song, animation or any other tool that might help make sense of the question. The only criteria: The answer must interest and inform 11-year-olds, who will judge the answers and choose the final winner.

In a video on the site, Alda encourages fourth- through sixth-graders to become judges: "The wonderful thing about this contest is the entries are going to be judged by real 11-year-olds. So this is one time when people your age get a chance to tell people their age 'No, good try, but you didn't quite do it,' or 'Great try, and you win the contest.'"

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.