The Winning Answer To A Burning Question

Alan Alda challenged scientists to explain what a flame is to an 11-year-old. Three months and more than 800 entries later he is back with the winner of the contest. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the winning entry and why the contest was an effective exercise in science communication.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Our multimedia editor Flora Lichtman is here to join us now to talk about the flame challenge. Welcome, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Remember back in March when we talked to Alan Alda?

LICHTMAN: Of course, who could forget?

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And he told us about the flame contest. He challenged scientists around the world to explain what a flame is in a clear, engaging and meaningful way so that even an 11-year-old like he was when he wondered about...

LICHTMAN: Or me...

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: ...could understand.

FLATOW: ...to talk about - well, more than 800 - 800 - entries...

LICHTMAN: Wow.

FLATOW: ...later, the results of the contest are in, and joining us now for an update is Alan Alda. In addition to being an actor, director and screenwriter, he's also a founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Welcome back.

ALAN ALDA: Thank you. Hello, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Tell us about what this voyage was like of getting all the way to the final contestant.

ALDA: You know, it was amazing. I think that we expected maybe at the most a couple of hundred responses. And what happened was you picked up on it, ABC News picked up on it, The New York Times, various news organizations. In fact, I was even interviewed by a radio station in Ireland. Everybody picked up on the idea which helped get people's interest so we had a lot of scientists around the world, all different countries, entering the contest. And then school teachers signed up their classes in - I don't know how many countries all over America and many other countries.

So we - it really became a worldwide thing which surprised us. And then the quality of some of the responses were just - was just wonderful. And the response of the kids was amazing. We have videos of kids discussing the entries. And one of the most surprising things to me was, while they rated entries highly if they were videos, if they had humor in them and if they were easy to understand, they rated them highly on those criteria, but they demoted them, they took points off if there wasn't enough information.

They kept talking about how they wanted information and how they needed to learn and remember from these entries what a flame was. That was very heartening to me, and I think it should be instructive to scientists too.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Because the kids didn't want it dumbed down.

ALDA: No, they really didn't. In fact, one kid said, you know, we're 11. We're not 7.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: So the kids were the judges, right? Did they actually do the selecting?

ALDA: They did. They did. They did everything except check it for accuracy. So we had a number of scientists who were qualified to check the entries for accuracy before they went to the kids who did the entire judging process. They were in charge of it. They narrowed it down to a group of finalists in the first round, and then it was sent out. The finalists were sent out to them again, and they chose the winner.

LICHTMAN: And what made the cream of the crop, the cream of the crop?

ALDA: Well, I think it was clarity, engagement, explaining difficult words. As a matter of fact, this entry uses three or four words that are not familiar to most of us who haven't been trained in science. And the kids loved it because they learned what these words meant in an engaging way. So they were not satisfied with some kind of a metaphor that just sort of generally related to what the process was. They wanted something about the process in - of the flame in specifics. And they got it in the most engaging way in this winner of the contest.

LICHTMAN: Should we - I think we should bring on the winner because actually the winner of the contest is this week's Video Pick of the Week. We couldn't pass this one up. The video was just too good. It had a cupcake in it and an original song.

ALDA: And a guy chained to the wall in hell.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: In hell.

ALDA: Talk about flames.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: He went right to the source.

LICHTMAN: So we have Ben Ames here with us. He's the one who made this video. He's a Ph.D. candidate in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Welcome to the program. And congratulations, Ben.

BEN AMES: Hey. Thank you very much. And I have to say it's great to be on the show. I'm a big fan, always have been.

FLATOW: How did you hear about the contest?

AMES: Well, you know, we've come full circle. I heard about it on the SCIENCE FRIDAY podcast. I was working in my lab. I'm an experimental physicist, so I was fixing some problems with my setup and listening to some old podcasts that were filtering through my computer. And lo and behold, I fell upon the contest this way, so.

LICHTMAN: And...

ALDA: How much time did you have between then and the contest?

AMES: Ha, ha. I only had - I had less than two weeks. So I heard about the contest...

...that were filtering through my computer, and lo and behold, fell up on the contest this way. So...

LICHTMAN: And...

ALDA: How much time did you have between then and...

AMES: Ha, ha. I...

ALDA: ...and the contest?

AMES: I only - I had less than two weeks. So I heard about the contest, and I thought, if I'm going to do this, I've got to take work off. And so that's what I did.

LICHTMAN: So what prompted you to actually take work off and do all this work? I mean, you can tell there's a lot of craft and care put into this.

AMES: You know, I have a genuine - I think I always have had a genuine desire to understand the natural world around me, and I think a lot of kids generally do. And - but as a kid, you know, my science educators were great, but for some reason, they just - nothing really resonated with me. And I knew that I wanted to make something that I would have liked to have heard or watched as an 11-year-old. And so, you know, I'm still quite ignorant in physics, which is what I study. And so I like to communicate to others the way that I like to be communicated to.

LICHTMAN: And you have a background in arts, to some degree, too, right?

AMES: Yeah, I do. I spent my high school doing visual arts, of kind of - if you ask friends of mine from high school, you know, or tell them that I'm a physicist now, they'll laugh, because I was doing theater and art and then music.

LICHTMAN: We - in fact, your video features a song.

AMES: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: And I think we'd like to play a little clip of it.

AMES: OK, great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMES: (Singing) The fuel loses mass. It turns to a gas. Before the next change is through, some atoms shine blue. When the process is complete, it gives off heat. Extra carbon will glow red, orange, yellow. The fuel loses mass. It turns to a gas. Before the next change is through, some atoms shine blue.

LICHTMAN: Where did this song come from?

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: It seems perfect.

(LAUGHTER)

AMES: You know, I was sitting in an electronics class at the University of Utah during my undergraduate. And I really wasn't focusing too much on the lecture at hand, but I was thinking about how I wanted to get home and play this song, this little riff that was going through my mind. And so I did. I just recorded it with Garage Band and a cheap, little $100 guitar that I had, you know. And it just on my hard drive for four years, and I had no real use for it until I heard about the contest and I knew I wanted to have music involved. And so I just had to add some catchy lyrics, and there have you have it.

LICHTMAN: He had it in the can.

FLATOW: Alan, is this how they do it in show business?

ALDA: You know, I - he could rule show business if he decides to get out of quantum physics.

(LAUGHTER)

AMES: No thanks.

LICHTMAN: We were thinking the same thing.

ALDA: Actually, show business is a lot harder than quantum physics, but you could do it, anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: He's an extraordinary artist in this. He gives a great narration. He plays the part beautifully. He's got a song that he wrote. And he's a great teacher, because this song can - is the summary of the video, but all of these ideas in that song are so fully explained earlier in the video that you get it. It's not - these are not foreign terms to you by now. These are things you just want to hear over and over again to the music. And kids love it because they - they report that it helps them remember the idea. The song goes through their head all day, whether they want to think about it or not.

AMES: It could be a bad thing, right?

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: You know, this reminds me of "Schoolhouse Rock." It seems in that genre.

AMES: Yeah. You know, I didn't watch a whole lot of "Schoolhouse Rock" as a kid. I remember it coming on in-between Saturday morning cartoons. But, you know, the really - the - I wanted music because my wife, she still sings this song that she learned when she was in seventh grade. She can name every country on the continent of Africa from this song that she learned, and it stuck with her. And I thought, hey, if I can do something like that with flames, and then that would be a good thing.

FLATOW: Did the idea of using a Lego, a boxing ring come to you right away? I mean...

AMES: You know, not - Legos, maybe it did. You know, as a kid, you see all these complicated diagrams of molecules, and I tried to actually - not even - well, actually, I didn't. I didn't use the word molecule, because I wanted to trim the science fat as, you know, as much as I possibly could. And so, you know, molecules and atoms, they're the building blocks. And so I thought, hey, why not just use building blocks?

And originally, I had - you know, my video was like 12 minutes long, over 12 minutes long. And every single bit of my explanation included a few more minutes of explanation, including the chemiluminescence part. I didn't have the fighting ring. I had a guy looking down at the table and these - the hydrocarbon and the two oxygen molecules were playing a game of leapfrog, and they would expose these free radicals that would emit light. And I looked at it in the end, and I thought, OK. This is kind of overboard. And so I just covered the whole thing (unintelligible) and tried to get the basic idea across.

ALDA: What I can't get - I can't imagine that you made it an even longer video in the less than two weeks that you had.

AMES: Just be grateful you didn't see that bit, that version.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: That's the director cut, right?

(LAUGHTER)

AMES: No, I don't know. I don't know.

ALDA: The next thing he's going to do is "Physics: The Musical."

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Well, that's a good point. Can you do more of this?

AMES: Well...

FLATOW: I mean, Ben, if we ask you to do more, would you do some for our website, a video?

AMES: Well, you know what? It's - this was such a thrill ride for me because it really, in a unique way, combined both of my passions, and I had never before been involved in something where my mind was so fully engaged. It was a complete rush. And, you know, I don't know what the future holds for it, but in either case, just for the sheer thrill of it alone, absolutely, I'll be doing some more.

LICHTMAN: Well, yeah, I hope we can see them on sciencefriday.com. And everyone who's listening should go check this out, too. This really is a great video.

FLATOW: Right. We've only played a little bit of the music, but as Alan said, there's a six minutes in front of that music of incredible animation, explanation, description. I'm running out of itions(ph).

LICHTMAN: You learn a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And you really do learn a lot in a fun way out on this thing.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

ALDA: And it's a great beginning for this whole Flame Challenge idea. I mean, this has set the bar really high. And next year, we're going to have another question that will be generated by 11-year-olds themselves, and they'll vote on which question they want it to be, and, you know, what the final question is going to be. And maybe Ben will win that again.

(LAUGHTER)

AMES: I was told I can't. I was told I couldn't enter. So...

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Alan...

FLATOW: So this was your - so you're not coming up with the idea, Alan, next year? This is going to be what the kids want...

ALDA: Right. I mean, we had a real 11-year-old come up with this question this time. That 11-year-old was me when I was 11. And I want to see what 11-year-olds come up with. I must say, we announced Ben as the winner at an event, at the World Science Festival. And that same day, we said, would everybody in the audience take the card we've given you and write what your question might be for the next Flame Challenge? And the first one that came back was: What is time?

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: It was...

ALDA: That was pretty stiff.

FLATOW: Yeah, a little (unintelligible). You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, with Flora Lichtman, talking with Ben Ames and Alan Alda about the Flame Challenge and the results. And, Ben, you think you can set up a studio to do these? You said you did this sort of in your garage or your basement?

(LAUGHTER)

ALDA: Tell him about where you did it.

AMES: You know, I live up in the mountains of Austria, and I have this little cellar that - that's below my - the, you know, the ground floor of my home. And so I cut up this old mattress and I built a little sound booth so I could - and I actually went and I spent money I didn't have on a microphone, hoping that I could return it when I was done with it, which I couldn't. So now I have this mike sitting on my desk that I have to use again. But, yeah, I kind of locked myself away in a basement for over week, just animating and recording and playing music. It was a lot of fun, but I only got a few hours of sleep.

ALDA: Not even George Lucas did that.

(LAUGHTER)

AMES: I don't know.

LICHTMAN: Alan Alda, do you think that scientists are looking for this kind of outlet? I mean, this wasn't for the cash and fame and fortune, probably, that all these people submitted these great videos. I mean, Ben's a great example.

ALDA: You know, there may be a creative side or an artistic side. I know there's a creative side to artists to - pardon me - there's a creative side to scientists already, but there may be an artistic side, too, waiting to break free. And I think we're finding that at The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook, where we teach improvising, we teach workshops in improvisation to scientists to get them to be more personal when they're giving a personal presentation, and they eat it up. They love it. It's - first of all, it's freeing for anybody, but I think, very often, they don't get a chance to do something like that, bowing to the understandable rigors of their profession.

FLATOW: Ben, do you think that because you study quantum physic - which is such a hard thing to explain to lay people - that you had practice in explanation? And now you have hit upon something you're good at in explaining these things.

AMES: I don't know if the - if I've had a lot of practice at explaining this to a general audience. I mentioned earlier, in earlier interviews, that I try to explain this to family, and the first question that get back are with regards to light sabers and the possibility to choosing - achieving things on "Star Wars" and stuff. So I don't know if I'm doing a great job at it, but this was a definitely a great lesson in how to do it. I really try to think about, what does a kid - what are the essential things I would need to know, and what would get me excited? The cool thing of physics is you can kind of take it down to a simplified level, you know. Just on a fundamental level, you're talking about little billiard balls, you know, that are just - have a lot of energy bouncing off each other. And so, you know, I think it's definitely something I'd like to continue doing for sure.

FLATOW: Wow.

ALDA: Did you have any - where you tempted at all to get into quantum effects in your description?

(LAUGHTER)

AMES: Well, I mean - yeah - I mean, yes and no. I mean, so I talk about, you know, this - these - during these reactions, you get this single atom that spits out light.

ALDA: Yeah.

AMES: Look, you know, that alone is a quantum effect, but I definitely didn't want to talk about anything deeper than that.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Well, Ben, congratulations to you, and we're waiting for your next one. We will feature it up on our website. This video's up on our website @sciencefriday.com. You're welcome to become our video producer extraordinaire...

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: In the field.

FLATOW: ...in the field. And good luck with - good luck to you.

ALDA: And congratulations (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Alan Alda, the director, screenwriter and founding member of The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook. We'll wait to see what happens next, Alan, which you come up with next.

ALDA: I'm looking forward to it. It's exciting.

FLATOW: Thanks for being with us today.

ALDA: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: And we're going to leave you with the music with Ben Ames' winning entry. And with me is Flora Lichtman. Thank you, Flora. That was a great video.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: It's our Video Pick of the Week.

LICHTMAN: You can't miss this one.

FLATOW: You can't. It's up there on our website. They're usually - they're what, three - three or so minutes long, and this is a...

LICHTMAN: Double feature.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: It's really long, but - and you'll watch it all the way through. It takes place in hell. What more could you want?

FLATOW: Yes, it's a guy came to a wall in hell learning about flames, right? That all fits together.

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