Skip to main content

Alan Alda’s ‘Flame Challenge’ Winners Answer the Question: What Is Sleep?

What is Sleep? Flame Challenge 2015 Entry by Eric Galicia from Eric Galicia on Vimeo.

If you had to describe what sleep is to an eleven-year-old, what would you say?  More than 200 scientists from around the world gave this their best shot in this year's Flame Challenge, a contest run by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The question and the winning responses were selected by thousands of eleven-year-olds in schools around the world. Dr. Brandon Aldinger, a chemist in Renfrew, Pa., won for the written explanation, and the winning video was from Eric Galicia, a graduate student in health physics in Des Plaines, Ill. Both received $1,000 prizes and recognition 31 May at the World Science Festival in New York City.

In his written explanation of sleep, Aldinger hooked his young readers by pointing out that all animals, including humans, will die if they don't sleep. He described the two main activities of the brain during sleep. One is strengthening the connections between neurons, suggesting that "the next time your mom or dad yells, 'Wake up! It's time to go to school!' you can explain to them that you were actually still studying from yesterday!" The second activity is healing, which makes sleep "a little bit like a superpower." He also pointed out that dreams happen as the brain calms down from the stimulation of being awake and its neurons shoot out random signals, "like a TV station with too much static."

Galicia's 4:49-minute video successfully uses humor, a disembodied voice talking to a character named Brian, simple drawings, and various short scenes to explain the importance and purpose of sleep. With this combination, Galicia conveys details such as how, during sleep, our cerebral spinal fluid cleans up all the cellular waste, specifically a gummy plaque called amyloid beta, that is generated by our brain throughout the day. He also shows how the brain releases serotonin to inhibit the body from moving while we dream. In another scene, the character chooses to eat a bar of soap instead of the apple sitting next to it, thanks to the poor judgment brought on by staying up late playing video games.

The Flame Challenge started four years ago with "What is a flame," a question Alan Alda (actor, writer, science advocate, and visiting professor at Stony Brook) recalls pondering when he was eleven.  The next two years' questions were "What is time?" and "What is color?" The Flame Challenge encourages scientists to consider how to explain complex topics to non-scientists, highlighting the benefits and rewards communicating science can bring. The contest is sponsored by the American Chemical Society and AAAS.

This year's sleep question was suggested by a sixth-grade class at Garden City Middle School on Long Island, NY. Children can submit ideas for next year's question at