Announcing Flame Challenge 2

Today’s post is by Emily Bones, an assistant production editor and Newscripts contributor here at C&EN. Although Election Day got top billing, it’s not the only vote-centric event of the week. As of Monday, the Center for Communicating Science (CCS), a division of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, opened the polls for choosing the next Flame Challenge question. When he was 11 years old, Alan Alda, an actor and the founder of CCS, asked the burning question, “What is a flame?” He never received an answer he thought was satisfactory, so last year he challenged scientists across the world to submit answers in a way that an 11-year-old could understand. The winner, Ben Ames, created an animated video that defines flame-related terms and then brings all the concepts together in the form of a song. This year, the newly established tradition will continue: Another question will be posed to scientists around the globe. From June to October of this year, more than 300 potential questions were submitted online to CCS by inquisitive 11-year-olds. The pool of questions has now been narrowed down to five possibilities, “which  might look simple at first glance, but would offer good scientific complexity, like the question from last year,” explains Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, workshop coordinator at CCS. And the five contenders are: 1.) Does the universe have a known end? 2.) How does the brain store all of that information? 3.) What is time? 4.) How do you hear your thoughts in your head? 5.) What is color? Polls are open until November 16, at 5 PM EST. The catch? Only 10- to 12-year-olds can vote. They can do so by clicking here. Votes can be submitted by individuals or as a class. The final question will be announced on Dec. 11, which will mark the start of the second challenge. So scientists, get ready to answer one of these questions—submissions are due by March 1, 2013. And if you have or know a 10- to 12-year-old, now’s the time to get them voting.

Author: Lauren Wolf

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  1. 1.) Does the universe have a known end?
    Not at this time. People are constantly looking further out into space and discovering new things. People have been doing this since the dawn of people. The oldest light in the universe comes from the Cosmic Microwave Background. That’s the part after the big bang where the universe was finally transparent enough for light to travel through it.

    2.) How does the brain store all of that information?
    When you have a sense, like seeing something, a signal gets sent into your brain that slightly changes the shape of the nerves in your brain. But it’s very small, it’s more like connecting a lot of wires together. When you can re-experience that wiring without getting the senses involved, you relive the memory. There are all kinds of chemicals and names that scientists have found to describe this process in much further detail.

    3.) What is time?
    Time is the sense in which things happen. It doesn’t matter how fast time is, time is always relative. If nothing ever changed, there would be no such thing as time. Stuff in your brain is always happening. Your blood is always flowing if you’re alive, and since your brain is always thinking, it’s always sensing time. Even when it’s not thinking, your body is still sensing time.

    4.) How do you hear your thoughts in your head?
    Memories. You can’t know the meaning of a word until you’ve had an experience with it. So you remember that word later.
    The rest of it all comes down to imagination and reorganizing the things you do know into a new idea or thought.

    5.) What is color?
    Color is too small to see individually. Light, the thing colors are made of, is made of tiny points of stuff. Scientists call them photons. When you have enough photons in one place(that is, your eye) you can see. Different photons have different amounts of energy and are shaking differently, and the difference is what makes colors different from each other.

    You simply have to say that a certain wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum is the same as a certain color.
    Red is about 700 nanometers
    Orange-yellow is around 600
    Green-blue is about 500
    Purple-violet is about 400

    There are all different kinds of ways to express the same ideas, especially in science.

    For example…

    “The ball is orange.”
    “The sphere is emitting an electromagnetic frequency of 600 nanometers.”
    Actually describe the exact same thing. There’s no literal difference.