Flame Challenge 2014
Jan31

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 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...

Read More
Hey, ACS, Where’s My Comic Book?
Jun11

Hey, ACS, Where’s My Comic Book?

If you read this blog with any regularity (I know there’s at least one of you out there, two tops), you’ll remember a post I wrote awhile back bemoaning the lack of chemistry coloring books. I had just come across a supercool version about biology—filled with stem cells and neurons and viruses, oh my!—and was wondering what a chemistry version (perhaps produced by the American Chemical Society) might look like. Well, that coloring book still hasn’t materialized, and now I’m even more miffed: The physicists have comic books. And notice that I didn’t say “a” comic book. They have many of them. I spotted a few of these at the American Physical Society (APS) national meeting, held in Baltimore, back in March. One called “Nikola Tesla and the Electric Fair” caught my eye, as well as a S-E-R-I-E-S of books about the original laser superhero Spectra (you know how it goes: She discovers her powers after a class on lasers and winds up being able to cut through metal and play CDs … just your typical teenage drama). These educational aids for middle school classrooms are distributed by APS. But I wouldn’t even say they’re just for middleschoolers. I read all the way through the story of Telsa: It brings to life the epic battle between himself and Thomas Edison over alternating current (AC) and direct current. I guess I never realized that the “War of the Currents” ended when Tesla successfully used AC to light the infamous World’s Fair in Chicago (where the Ferris Wheel also made its debut). Via the comic, I also discovered that Tesla had a fondness (perhaps a little too much fondness) for pigeons. So even I learned something! But it wasn’t until I received a press release about Stephen Hawking’s new comic book that I was pushed over the edge to write this post and point out this educational trend. “Stephen Hawking: Riddles of Time & Space” is produced by Washington-based Bluewater Productions. It chronicles the cosmologist’s life, including how he discovered that he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and his dispute with scientist Fred Hoyle over the Big Bang Theory. You can get your print copy of it here for $4.33. Folks making comic books about physics is by no means a bad trend. But I’m once again left wondering, “Where’s the chemistry equivalent?” We may not have Stephen Hawking or Nikola Tesla to brag about, but surely we’ve got someone who’s got an interesting story to relate to the general public? Organic chemist R.B. Woodward, in all his Mad-Men-esque glory? One of the many bearded chemists of yore?...

Read More
Flame Challenge 2: And The Winners Are
Jun07

Flame Challenge 2: And The Winners Are

Some 20,000 11-year-olds voted to determine the winners of the Flame Challenge 2 competition. Depending on the format of scientists’ responses to this year’s question, “What is time?” entries were categorized as written or visual. Nicholas Williams, a retired scientist who spent 33 years working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and ACS member Steven Maguire, a Ph.D. candidate in inorganic catalysis at the University of Ottawa, in Ontario, were recognized as the winners on June 2 at the World Science Festival, in New York City. Both winners have experience communicating science, which is the goal of the competition. Williams, the winner of the written category, continues to work with LLNL through its “Fun with Science” outreach program. About teaching science, Williams says, “Teach so it makes sense. Teach so it can be understood. Teach so it can be remembered.” And this he did in his entry. He begins his prose mimicking a nagging parent and their child, “Time to go to school, time to clean your room, time to do this, time to do that.” No wonder 11-year-olds like his answer: He immediately relates to their world before he gets to the tough stuff. Maguire, winner of the visual category, hosts a Web series, “Science Isn’t Scary.” In each video clip, he answers a science question that seems complicated, but by the end of the explanation Maguire has helped the viewer better understand the science behind how or why something works. His series is essentially mini Flame Challenges, so he has experience explaining scientific concepts to an audience in a way that they'll understand. According to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a division of Stony Brook University, in New York, and one of the sponsors of the Flame Challenge, there will be another question from 11-year-olds for scientists to answer in 2014. If you know an 11-year-old who has a suggestion for the Flame Challenge 3, submit their question...

Read More
Flame Challenge 2: The Answers Are In
May02

Flame Challenge 2: The Answers Are In

Last year, actor and science advocate Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science, sponsored the inaugural Flame Challenge by asking scientists around the world to answer “What is a flame?” so that an 11-year-old could understand. This year, the American Chemical Society and the American Association for Advancement of Science have joined in on the sponsorship, and the question scientists have been asked to answer is, “What is time?” Nearly 20,000 students from around the world have voted on the hundreds of submissions that made it through an initial screening by trained scientists, and the six best answers--three videos and three written responses--have been unveiled on the Flame Challenge website. The finalists each use unique examples to explain time. Some mention Einstein’s theory of relativity, some go into the details of the space-time continuum, and some rely on time being an invented concept that keeps track of events. One thing mentioned in each entry: time only has one direction and that’s forward. Registered schools can vote for their favorite answers until May 5. This year, rather than recognizing one overall winner, the best entry for each format will be recognized. That will happen at an event on June 2 at the World Science Festival, in New York...

Read More
This Week on CENtral Science: Papal Chemistry, Neuroscience of Magic, Pi Day, and more
Mar15

This Week on CENtral Science: Papal Chemistry, Neuroscience of Magic, Pi Day, and more

Tweet of the Week: Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, came late to the priesthood after studying chemistry. My question is: What turned him off to chemistry?— Gary Garchar (@ggarchar) March 14, 2013 I've had a blast as CENtral Science overlord. Like other despots before me, I have a hard time letting go of power. So now that Rachel's back, we'll be switching off on these roundup posts each month. To the network: Fine Line: Waldorf Time Again Grand CENtral: Top 10 Shoutouts to Pope Francis and Chemistry – Storify Just Another Electron Pusher: A Troubling Shift in Tradition Newscripts: Alakazam! The Neuroscience of Magic and Amusing News Aliquots and There & Back Again: A Cyclotron’s Tale Terra Sigillata: How Would You Explain pH to First-Graders? and Are Popes and Chemistry Immiscible? The Safety Zone: UK thallium and arsenic poisoning case neither accident nor suicide attempt and Explosives case continued for former UC Davis chemist David Snyder and Friday chemical safety round up *not up as of 4:20PM Eastern, but this link will work when it posts. The Watch Glass: “Inert” Xenon Reacts with Fluorine and Nanotubes' Electronic Properties and Bohemian retorts and Calculate pi with frozen hot dogs and Albert Ghiorso: Element...

Read More