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Flame Challenge 2014

A love of chemistry burns deep in the heart of Robert E. Buntrock. So much so, the American Chemical Society emeritus member will be fanning the flame of his love for the central science in the 2014 Flame Challenge.

This annual challenge, which is entering its third year of sponsorship by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, SUNY, and the second year of sponsorship by

This year's question for scientists to answer is "What is color?" Credit: Shutterstock

This year’s question for scientists to answer is “What is color?” Credit: Shutterstock

ACS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asks scientists to answer a seemingly simple scientific question in such a way that an 11-year-old can understand. This year’s question is “What is color?”

“Color is very important to me,” Buntrock says. “It helped attract me to chemistry.” So composing his essay shouldn’t be too difficult. The twist: He’s having his grandson’s fifth-grade class prejudge his entry. “My draft has exactly 300 words. We’ll see how much survives my critics,” he says.

Patrick Allen, who teaches Buntrock’s grandson Brody at Asa C. Adams Elementary School, in Orono, Maine, has signed up his fifth-grade class to judge Flame Challenge entries, so they will be practicing, too, when Buntrock visits them next week with his entry.

The annual competition began in 2012 when Alan Alda posed the question “What is a flame?” to scientists around the world because when he was 11-years-old he asked the question to his science teacher and wasn’t satisfied with the technical answer he received. The challenge question for the past two years has been decided by 11-year-olds across the world. This year, more than 800 questions were submitted by students.

Scientists can answer the question either in written form (no more than 300 words) or in visual or video format (less than 6 minutes), and entries are due by March 1.

In developing his entry, Buntrock has an extensive scientific background from which to draw. He is a semiretired chemist who does chemical information consulting and book reviews under the company name Buntrock Associates. He graduated with a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1962, and he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University in 1967. Before starting his company, Buntrock worked in industry for nearly 30 years at Air Products & Chemicals and Amoco Corp. A successful researcher, he holds three patents and has almost 200 publications.

With such an accomplished science career, Buntrock can’t wait to join in the Flame Challenge excitement. “I may have so much fun,” he says, “that I’ll enter again” next year.

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