Flame Challenge 2012: It's time to tackle time

Alan Alda at 11 years old.

Alan Alda at 11 years old. (Credit: Handout)

Some say it goes by too fast, while others have been known to annoy with "Are we there yet?"

"What is time?" was the winning question submitted by children to Stony Brook University's Flame Challenge, an international contest that prods scientists to explain hard-to-explain stuff in terms an 11-year-old can understand.

"What a deep question they asked," said award-winning actor Alan Alda, a founding member and visiting professor of the university's Center for Communicating Science. "There's something about time. Even though we use it all the time, we talk about time, we read it off clocks, computers, when you ask 'What is time?' that's a very abstract question."

Alda said he was surprised by how many children thought about time among the 300 questions submitted nationwide. Then, when students voted on the question to be posed to scientists, they chose time over most other submissions, such as "Why are Shetland ponies so small?" -- something Alda said he'd like to know, too.

For Alda, 76, the winning question proves that kids grow more sophisticated with each generation. When he was 11, his big question to a teacher was about something he could see and feel -- "What is a flame?"

That memory turned into the challenge question last year, when the contest debuted, and about 800 scientists rose to the Flame Challenge.

But Alda said "What is a flame?" now sounds "simple," because he thinks time won't be so kind to scientists.

"I'm very curious to see what scientists come up with," said the science fan, jokingly anticipating images of Salvador Dali's surrealistic paintings of clocks. "I wonder if we'll have more people throwing in the towel than we did the last time."

Not even the PBS series "Scientific American Frontiers" had tackled the definition of time when Alda was host, while Einstein's theories of time and space are brain twisters.

Simple or not, scientists' entries are due precisely by 11:59 p.m. EST March 1. The answers will be judged by 11-year-olds.

Two winners will be announced June 1, one from written entries and the other from visual entries. The winners will get a trip to New York, where they'll receive a trophy at the World Science Festival in June.

Even before the new challenge was formally announced Tuesday, 11 Long Island schools had signed up to judge, among the 5,000 students in 25 states and four countries with the time for time.

Scientists and young children enjoy interacting, Alda said, but the Flame Challenge goes beyond 11-year-olds.

"It's a playful way to introduce the idea to scientists that they could be clearer about what they're saying," the professor said. "If they can make it clear to a kid, then they can make it clear to adults who aren't in their exact field of work or not at all in their field."

The Center for Communicating Science teaches scientists to unlearn jargon and speak in everyday terms, a key to nab funding from a lay world and to improve people's health and safety.

Alda said he hasn't had time to define time, but he's wondered about it, just like the kids in the Flame Challenge.

"A lot of 11-year-olds are at that very stage where they're very curious," he said. "They want an answer that's engaging, but they don't want a silly answer or an abrupt answer. They want something that really gives them a chance to get a toehold on this question."

How does he suppose adults would define time? Probably prosaically, Alda joked: "They'd say 'I have to go now.' "

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