Alan Alda’s Challenge to Scientists: Explain Color. To 11-Year-Olds.

The state of the universe.
Feb. 17 2014 11:55 PM

How Can You Explain “Color” to an 11-Year-Old?

Alan Alda’s challenge to scientists: Let kids be the judges.

explaining color to 11-year-olds.
We have a lot to learn by teaching 11-year-olds.

Photo-illustration by Slate. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Thinkstock

About six months ago, my 8-year-old asked whether fire was a solid, a liquid, or a gas. I am sad to confess that my answer at the time was: “A gas. ... No, a solid. … No. A gas. … It depends. … Let’s check Google. Look! A squirrel!” And those were the coherent parts. When actor Alan Alda was 11, he too asked a teacher what a flame was. And her one-word explanation—“oxidation”—wasn’t much more satisfying than mine. So in 2011, Alda—who is a longtime science enthusiast, PBS science sherpa, and founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York—developed the Flame Challenge, a competition in which scientists around the country are tasked with explaining a complicated scientific idea to the satisfaction of thousands of exacting 11-year-old judges.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

In 2012 the winning entry to the “What is a flame?” question was this fantastic video (exponentially better than my answer). Last year the question was “What is time?” (Here you go.) This year’s question—“What is color?” —was chosen from hundreds submitted by kids. Now, scientists from around the country have until March 1 to submit their responses in either the written category or a video/graphic format. Last year 20,000 students around the world weighed in on the judging.

I asked Alda whether the impetus for the Flame Challenge was teaching kids to understand science or getting scientists to explain science clearly. “I thought we were doing this mainly to teach scientists how hard and interesting it is to say something complex so an 11-year-old could understand it—and, by the way, so that I could understand it,” Alda says, “but then I saw that we got kids more excited about science than they ever were before. And it’s something science teachers can grab on to, to make science more interesting for the kids.” The real point of the Flame Challenge and the Center for Communicating Science, however, is to teach scientists to communicate their ideas clearly to laypeople, policymakers, and government officials.

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I asked him whether, three years into the challenge, he was more surprised by the sophistication of the 11-year-old student judges or the heroic communication efforts of the scientists. “I was surprised by Ben Ames’ video,” the winning flame explanation, he replies, “because it was so elaborate and so informative and fun.” But he says that more and more he is surprised by the complex questions the kids are coming up with for the experts. As last year’s question—“What is time?”—shows, the kids are so abstract and philosophical. But it also turns out that sometimes even seemingly simple questions are still the subject of scientific debate. “With all these questions, we vet the answers with experts,” Alda explains. “But it has happened that even the experts don’t agree on the answers. So that tells me that science is still in progress.”

I asked whether science has always been too technical and arcane to explain to an 11-year-old—Galileo wouldn’t have been able to explain science to a kid either, right? Or has science become more inaccessible over time? “One problem is acute specialization,” he replies, “so that words come into use within a specialty and come to mean different things.” As an example he offers this: “There was a meeting attended by neuroscientists and nanoscientists about a year ago, hoping to form a collaboration, and they wasted hours arguing over the meaning of the word probe.”