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Flame Challenge Winner Announced

Today’s post is by Emily Bones, an assistant production editor and Newscripts contributor here at C&EN.

In March, actor and science advocate Alan Alda, along with the Center for Communicating Science (CCS), a division of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, challenged the world to answer a seemingly simple question: “What is a flame?” Submissions, which were varied from prose writing to video to illustration, were due April 2.

A total of 822 entries were received. It took two months for an expert panel of scientists and 11-year-olds from around the world to thoroughly review entries and select the best one.

And the winner, announced before the “Cool Jobs” session at the World Science Festival in New York City on Saturday, is Ben Ames, a Missouri native working on his Ph.D. in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria. His entry is an animated video that defines flame-related terms and then brings all the concepts together in the form of a song. Ames grew up in a musical household but has been inspired by Thomas Edison since childhood, which led him to major in physics in college at the University of Utah. Watch his winning video here:

Participants had one month to formulate a response to Alda’s question. A panel of 11 scientists made up of SUNY Stony Brook scientists and three members of the American Chemical Society narrowed the field down to 535 acceptable explanations.

These entries were then sent to more than 130 schools around the world where about 6,100 11-year-olds narrowed the entries down to the best six. The finalists’ entries were posted on flamechallenge.org. Two are written explanations, one is a graphic, and three are videos. Eleven-year-olds from around the world voted on the final six via e-mail to determine the winning entry.

Ames was recognized at a session for kids, says Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, the workshop coordinator at CCS. “This challenge isn’t just a contest for kids, though. It’s a contest for scientists to communicate clearly.”

On Friday, an event highlighting lessons learned from the Flame Challenge took place at the World Science Festival. Alda shared with audience members some intriguing and surprising experiences from the Flame Challenge, including how metaphors are useful tools when communicating science and why it’s so important to define terms so your audience can truly understand the topic on hand.

Because the Flame Challenge was such a success, CCS is going to issue another challenge next year with a question from a child aged 10 to 12. This year’s question has been on Alda’s mind since he was 11, but he’s opening the platform to the public. The question should be simple-sounding but have some complexity behind it. Inquisitive preteens can send their question to CommunicatingScience@stonybrook.edu, and CCS will narrow down the field to five final questions, which will be voted on next year.

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