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Alan Alda’s ‘Flame Challenge’ Illuminates Importance of Communicating Science

July 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Clarity, specificity and humor are among the best tools for making kids grasp even simple questions like "What is a flame?" Science correspondent Miles O'Brien talks to actor Alan Alda and scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson about the need to explain science concepts to the public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: making science understandable to young people.

Sure, it sounds simple enough, but, sometimes, the explanation doesn’t really explain. Now a well-known actor who, as they say, once played a doctor on TV has made it his mission to help bridge the gap.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has the story.

MILES O’BRIEN: Talk about a tough crowd.

And thank you for — you were so orderly coming in, no spitballs thrown at me, none of that stuff. That was very nice of you.

ALAN ALDA, Actor: Do they still do spit balls?


ALAN ALDA: Really? Yes? No kidding.

MILES O’BRIEN: Some things don’t change. Right?


MILES O’BRIEN: A room full of restless 11-year-olds.

Do you know who we are?


MILES O’BRIEN: You have no idea. Have you ever seen this guy on TV?


MILES O’BRIEN: OK, good. That’s good. What show?


ALAN ALDA: Oh, my gosh.

MILES O’BRIEN: Oh, see. It lives on.

He hasn’t changed a bit, has he, right?




MILES O’BRIEN: But on this morning at South Middle School in Brentwood, New York, Alan Alda put them in the palm of his hand.


ALAN ALDA: You had your hand up, did you?

MILES O’BRIEN: And get this. The topic was science.

STUDENT: Why is the sky blue?

MILES O’BRIEN: That’s actually — that’s a really good one.

ALAN ALDA: That’s a — yes. Yes, and harder than it sounds. I love the questions that are harder than they sound.

MILES O’BRIEN: Alan Alda, sixth graders and science. Why this, well, mash-up? It turns out the seed that led to this moment was planted 65 years ago, when the actor was himself all of 11 and asked a teacher one of those seemingly simple, yet devilishly complex questions.

ALAN ALDA: What’s a flame? What’s in a flame? What’s going on inside a flame? All I heard from a teacher was, it’s oxidation. And that didn’t explain anything to me. I didn’t know what oxidation was.

MILES O’BRIEN: After his 11-season Emmy-winning run on the CBS sitcom “MASH”…

ALAN ALDA: Hand me the one on my right.

MILES O’BRIEN:  … he hosted the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers,” which enmeshed him in the world of science. And he couldn’t stop thinking about the flame, the non-answer and the challenge scientists face explaining their work to the public.

ALAN ALDA: Let go of it.

MAN: Yank. Yank harder. Yank.

MILES O’BRIEN: Why is it important?

ALAN ALDA: It’s important to communicate science because science is surrounding us. We swim in an ocean of science.

MILES O’BRIEN: And that is what sparked his idea for the Flame Challenge, scientists tasked to explain just what a flame is, besides oxidation, the winner selected by a worldwide jury of 6,000 11-year-olds from Alaska to Australia. There were more than 500 entries in all.

ALAN ALDA: St. Croix. Let’s hear from St. Croix.

MILES O’BRIEN: We watched as Alda and his enthusiastic judges from 10 classrooms discussed and debated the finalists in a videoconference.


STUDENT: OK. I really liked this entry because I thought that it explained everything really well. And it also was pretty funny. And it used music, so everyone remembered it. And I just thought it was a good answer.

ALAN ALDA: Great. Thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: Some scientists submitted written entries. Others used visuals. But it’s likely no surprise that this generation prefers videos.

MAN: Excuse me. Pardon me.

MILES O’BRIEN: And in particular this one featuring a man chained up in hell, LEGO molecules.

MAN: They rearrange to make new stuff, like water and carbon dioxide.

MILES O’BRIEN: And a little ditty that reinforces tricky concepts and long intimidating words.

MAN (singing): Oxidation.

ALYSSA MOONIOAL, Flame Challenge Judge: So I think the clarity mixed with the humor and the examples, it was — it just combined to make a really good entry.

KAITLYN DAVIDSON, Flame Challenge Judge: The good entries I thought were the ones that, even though they — if they did have big words that we didn’t know, that they explained it in a simpler way for us.

ALAN ALDA: Listen, I will join you in this. And let’s all make sure the ball has the same weight, same size.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Flame Challenge is just the latest tactic in Alda’s ambitious campaign to bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of us. Believe it or not, this improvisation exercise is part of that effort. This is a class at the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University which Alda helped found three years ago to give these scientists in training some training in the art of communication.

What on Earth does that have to do with science?


ALAN ALDA: What it has to do with science is, if all you’re worried about is, how do I look, how do I sound, will I remember all the hard words, am I saying this exactly the right way, then you’re not really communicating. You’re all in — your in your own head.

OK. Go.

MILES O’BRIEN: And while there’s no scientific proof it works, the grad students who have taken these classes offer strong testimonials.

ANDREW MALINGOWSKI, Chemist: Never dumb it down. Just make it more approachable. That’s why we played the game.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s not simple, is it?


CHRISTINE O’CONNELL, Marine Scientist: And it really helps you focus on the connections with the audience and when you’re losing them and how to get that back. Instead of being stuck in your head and worried about how you’re sounding, you’re worried about — you’re looking at are you — are they getting what you’re saying?

MAN: Strewn like sea froth on the waves of space are enumerable faint tendrils of light, some of them containing hundreds of billions of suns.

MILES O’BRIEN: Scientists willing to loosen up and engage the public often find themselves the target of harsh attack from their peers. It happened to the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan, star of the 1980s PBS series “Cosmos,” and became a “Tonight Show” regular, famous enough to be gently mocked by Johnny Carson himself.

JOHNNY CARSON, HOST, “The Tonight Show”: Last McDonald’s before the edge of the universe. They have actually sold over nine billion cosmic hamburgers, and, of course, billions and billions of fries.

CARL SAGAN, Astrophysicist: Come with me.

MILES O’BRIEN: Sagan blazed a trail for others.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, American Museum of Natural History: Yes. There is some exploratory clearing of the brush that he conducted. I’m a little bit unscathed because he cleared it in advance of my arrival.

Here’s one of the biggest surprises. As clever and as perceptive as the human brain can be…

MILES O’BRIEN: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is an heir to the Sagan throne of popular science.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: On this episode of “NOVA scienceNow.”

MILES O’BRIEN: He has hosted the PBS “NOVA scienceNow” program.

STEPHEN COLBERT, Host, “The Colbert Report”: Neil deGrasse Tyson?

MILES O’BRIEN: Is a regular on “The Colbert Report” and is currently working on a new “Cosmos” series that will air on FOX.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: If you get tax money to do your research, as we do in astrophysics, all right, NASA and the National Science Foundation, then you — it is not only your duty. It’s an obligation to share the fruits of your research with the public. If the public doesn’t embrace science, then not only does science go out of business. So does the public. So does your country.

MILES O’BRIEN: Nice hardware, huh? That’s good stuff.

MILES O’BRIEN: But not all scientists are able to use both sides of their brain, like Ben Ames can, a quantum physicist working toward his Ph.D. at the University of Innsbruck and the creator of the video that kids loved and voted the undisputed winner of the Flame Challenge.

BEN AMES, Flame Challenge Winner: The truth is, not everybody is a qualified communicator in a sense. And so I think definitely people who have that tool set should use it. I think the people who have the tool set are then obligated.


MILES O’BRIEN: Ames came to New York to get his trophy, awarded by Alan Alda’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Ellie. He was also rewarded with a surprise serenade of the song he wrote.

BEN AMES: For me, the most touching part was just seeing that kids have got it. They understood what I was trying to say. And whatever I did, it worked.

MILES O’BRIEN: It was a victory, too, for Alan Alda, who was just as impressed with his young judges as he was with Ben Ames.

ALAN ALDA: What I loved about what they said was that they didn’t like the short answers, the ones that were too short, because they didn’t learn enough. They wanted to learn. They really wanted to understand it.

MILES O’BRIEN: There will be another challenge next year. And once again, an 11-year-old will pick the question scientists will have to answer, this time, a current 11-year-old, not one who asked a question in 1947 and got the answer and so much more in 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can watch Ben Ames’ entire winning entry on our Web site.

Also there, a surprising thing Alan Alda learned about kids and science through the challenge.