TOPICS > Science

Alan Alda is Trying to Find the Next Carl Sagan

BY Miles O'Brien  July 1, 2012 at 1:52 PM EDT


Any parent can remember the moment when their child asks one of those seemingly simple, yet devilishly hard questions: you know,
why is the sky blue?”… why are plants green?”…and where do babies come from?

One of the toughest in this category is what is a flame? In 1947, an 11-year old Alan Alda asked his teacher that question and got a non-response: oxidation thus ensuring young Alan would continue on his career path of acting instead of taking a turn toward science.

His teacher might have been too busy, but in all likelihood, didnt really know the answer. I sure didnt before I started working on my story for the NewsHour on the Flame Challenge. In fact, one of the few things I knew about flames was they burn in a sphere in the absence of gravity (no convection without it).

I felt bad about this until I met the winner, Ben Ames. Ben is a quantum physicist working on his doctorate at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. When he heard about the Flame Challenge, he became immediately intrigued, but he also did what all Dads hoping to maintain their superpower luster do these days; he immediately went to Wikipedia to try and figure out what the heck a flame is anyway.

So dont feel bad, fellow humanities majors. The problem with the Wikipedia entry is that its tough sledding for an 11-year-old and for those who stopped learning science when they were eleven.

A lot of great scientists have offered detailed explanations. The famous 19th century chemist and physicist Michael Faraday (known best for his work with electromagnetism) explained how a candle works in great detail in 1860.

Its doubtful most 11-year olds would be able to slog through all six lectures, however.

The great 20th century quantum physicist and popularizer of science Richard Feynman offered a great, engaging narrative of what fire is to a BBC interviewer in 1983. Feynman had that great gift of always being able to remember what it is like to know nothing about a particular subject. This can be a rare quality among scientists at the top of their respective fields.

The Feynman explanation reminds me of this classic commercial produced by the European Union to encourage more interest in science.

Ben Ames spent a lot of time researching his subject and talking to colleagues then fired up the right side of his brain which is pretty capable as it turns out.

He told me: I thought, I think I know how I can do this.’”

And so Ames locked himself in the basement much to the chagrin of his wife and two-year-old daughter and started writing, drawing and composing music. The result (finished just before the deadline) is a brilliant video the hands-down winner of the Flame Challenge. 

I was running on all cylinders doing this, Ames told me. I have never been through something so exhilarating in my life.

Ben is one dad who I suspect will maintain his superhero status when his daughter starts asking those devilish questions.

I spoke with Hari recently about my experience reporting the story. You can see our video chat here: