Alan Alda Wants YOU … To Describe A Flame

This post was written by Emily Bones, a member of the Editing & Production group here at C&EN.

Alda's got a burning question. Credit: Rudy Baum/Shutterstock/C&EN

At the ripe young age of 11, actor and science advocate Alan Alda asked his science teacher, “What is a flame?” And she responded, “It’s oxidation.” To an 11-year-old, that doesn’t mean much. And at 76, Alda’s still searching for a suitable response. Along with the State University of New York, Stony Brook’s Center for Communicating Science, Alda has presented the world with a challenge, appropriately called the Flame Challenge. The task is simple: “Answer the question—‘What is a flame?’—in a way that an 11-year-old would find intelligible and maybe even fun,” states. In an editorial in Science this month, Alda reminds readers that “scientists urgently need to be able to speak with clarity to funders, policymakers, students, the general public, and even other scientists." In the article, he announces the challenge to promote science talk and avoid science jargon. Answers to the burning question are due to by April 2. Entries can be in the form of a recorded explanation, a written response, or an illustration. The winner will receive a VIP pass to the 5th annual World Science Festival in New York City, held May 30 to June 3, organized by the nonprofit Science Festival Foundation. To support the mission of the challenge, after a team of well-seasoned scientists has screened the entries for accuracy, a panel of 11-year-olds will choose the final winner. To learn how to be a panelist, contact And next week, at the ACS national meeting in San Diego, attendees can answer the question by visiting booth 638 in the exposition. There will be video cameras on hand to record answers, and these recordings can be submitted to the Flame Challenge. We hope Newscripts readers will enter. After all, who better to explain a flame than a chemist?

Author: Lauren Wolf

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1 Comment

  1. I suggest appropriate background music be used – Shiny Toy Guns’ version of “Burnin’ for You” or Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. Alternatively, develop a rhyming explanation and use a karaoke version of the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire”.