What Is Time? Alan Alda Contest Seeks Answer For Sixth-Graders
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Alan Alda, 76, an actor who is best known for his portrayal of Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on the television show MASH, has also long been involved in science, playing a key role in the founding of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where he is a visiting professor. Alda last year kicked of a whirlwind contest by asking a simple question: “What is a flame?”
That question heralded the responses of more than 800 people, trying to explain a complex phenomenon in terms that would be easily comprehensible for an 11-year-old student. The query did not come about by chance, but had been kicking around inside Alda’s head since he was that 11-year-old boy wondering what a flame was and how it worked. The inspiration for the question, and the contest, derived from a disappointing encounter he had with a teacher all those years ago.
“I was 11 and I was curious. I had been thinking for days about the flame at the end of a candle. Finally, I took the problem to my teacher. ‘What’s a flame?’ I asked her. ‘What’s going on in there?’ There was a slight pause and she said, ‘It’s oxidation.’ She didn’t seem to think there was much else to say,” he wrote in a guest editorial in the journal Science in March.
Alda said the encounter was discouraging, and after decades of letting it sit in his mind, he decided it was time to get to the bottom of the flame conundrum.
After the huge success of that contest, which employed the minds of 6,000 11-year-old judges, Alda is up to it again. This time, he is asking “What is time?”
However, this year’s query had not come from a previous personal experience from Alda’s collective. Instead, the question was picked from more than 300 submissions by 11-year-olds across the country. The “What is time?” question comes from Sydney Allison, a sixth-grader at Gromm Elementary School in Reno, Nevada.
Entries for this year’s conundrum can be submitted until March 1, 2013. The winner will receive a trophy, a trip to the 2013 World Science Festival in NY and the satisfaction of educating not only sixth-graders, but the general public.
“This contest probably gives people the impression that it’s a teaching tool for kids,” Alda told Frank Eltman of the Associated Press. “That’s a happy by-product, but it really is a tool for scientists to take a complex question and explain it in a way the rest of us can understand.”
Alda, who has also been the longtime host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, said it is vital for society to have a better understanding of science, and said it’s up to scientists to better explain their work in layman’s terms.
“There’s hardly an issue we deal with today that isn’t affected by science,” Alda said. “I’ve even heard from a number of people in Congress that they often don’t understand what scientists are talking about when they go to Washington to testify, and these are the people who make the decisions about funding and policy.”
He said he has been confronted by many scientists who acknowledge they need to do a better job communicating.
“We see misinformation about scientific facts on a daily basis,” added Alda. “Sometimes you know so much about something you assume everybody else is as familiar as you are and you tend to speak in shorthand. Even other scientists may not understand what you are talking about if they are not an expert in your field.”