The 2014 Flame Challenge Asks, 'What Is Color?'

Now in its third year, the Flame Challenge encourages researchers to answer children’s questions about science with playful, everyday language and visuals.
Students from Brentwood's South Middle School form a giant, colorful question mark and ask this year's Flame Challenge question to scientists: "What is color?" | Courtesy Stony Brook University

An eleven-year old asks, "What is color?" And your answer is...

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University is challenging scientists to answer this vibrant question for this year's edition of the Flame Challenge, an international contest that asks scientists to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old. The challenge is sponsored by the American Chemical Society and AAAS.

The Flame Challenge began in 2011 with actor and science advocate Alan Alda's childhood query: What is a flame? "The Flame Challenge has grown from scientists trying to answer the question of one 11-year old (me) from many decades ago, to tackling questions on the minds of thousands of current 11-year olds from around the world," Alda said. "I'm in awe of the scientists who can bring clarity to these questions and I'm in awe of the kids who keep the scientists on their toes."

What is color? It's a fundamental question that spans the sciences. It can be answered from the perspective of physics, chemistry, psychology, even from a geological or oceanographic perspective. "We want scientists to think about how they can answer the question from their own field -- from biology to physics to anthropology or psychology," said Alda Center Director Elizabeth Bass.

To choose this year's challenge, the Alda Center collected more than 800 questions from children, ranging from "Why do we laugh?" to "What will happen if a black hole swallowed the sun?" Lots of kids asked questions about light and about color, including some very specific ones: "How is color created?" "Does everyone see color the same?" "Is my blue their blue?" And, one of the most classic childhood questions, "Why is the sky blue?"

Alda, who serves as visiting professor at the Center, will be a plenary speaker at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago.

"Communicating science in fun, thought-provoking ways is an important goal for all scientists as we face ongoing concerns about U.S. science education and the future science and technology workforce," said AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science. "By rewarding scientists who make science more accessible to everyone, the Flame Challenge is also raising awareness of the importance of science within our society."

Scientists have until 1 March 2014 to submit their answers in writing, video or graphics. The entries will be screened for scientific accuracy and then judged by 11-year-olds. Last year, nearly 20,000 students from around the world registered through their schools to serve as Flame Challenge judges. There will be two winners, one for a written entry and one for a visual (video or graphic) entry. The winning scientists will receive a trip to New York City, where they will meet Alda and be honored at the World Science Festival.

(Adapted from an Alda Center news release)