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

University of Ottawa chemistry student Steven Maquire explains time in his winning entry for the Flame Challenge. [Courtesy of Science Isn't Scary]

Alan Alda today announced the winners of Stony Brook University’s Flame Challenge contest, in which scientists had to explain “what is time?” in a way that would interest and enlighten 11-year-olds.

The winners, Steven Maguire, 33, and Nicholas Williams, 71, received trophies and congratulations from Alda and hundreds of children at the “What is Time?” event at the World Science Festival in New York City. Maguire, a chemistry graduate student at the University of Ottawa, in Canada, won for the top-ranked video explanation (see above). Williams, a retired engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNB) in California, won for the top-ranked written answer. The entries were judged by nearly 20,000 schoolchildren around the world.

The Flame Challenge aims to encourage scientists to explain complex material in ways non-scientists can understand. It is run by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and was sponsored by the American Chemical Society and AAAS.

“I was impressed that hundreds of scientists took up the challenge of answering such a tough question posed by 11-year-olds,” said Alda, a visiting professor at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. “And it was touching to see how thoughtfully and seriously the kids went about judging the entries. Their thoughts about communicating science are valuable feedback that can help scientists and the public carry on a real conversation.”

Maguire’s winning video couldn’t be simpler: He just looks into the camera and talks about time. But his sense of humor and his understanding of what appeals to 11-year-olds won the day. Although he currently researches alternative fuels, his real passion lies in science communication, and he has started his own web series called “Science Isn’t Scary.” He credits “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and his high school chemistry teacher with inspiring him.

Williams is retired from a 33-year career at LLNB, but since then has been working on science outreach through the lab’s “Fun with Science” program for fifth graders. Williams’ motto is “science is explainable magic.” Williams said he knows it is challenging to explain complex science to children, but it can be done.

“My hope is that the Flame Challenge will reinforce the concept that science must be understood, by all, no matter what the age,” Williams said. “In my class, at the top of my white board, I always put Albert Einstein’s quote, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’”

To find the Flame Challenge winners, entries from nearly 400 scientists were first screened for accuracy and then sent out to schools for judging by 11-year-olds. Almost 20,000 schoolchildren judged the entries, including children from 38 states, as well as schools in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America. Entries came in from scientists in Australia, Canada, China, England, Italy, Japan and Thailand, as well as the United States.

This year, the other finalists for the written category were C. Wesley Dingman, North Creek, NY, and James Wilkinson, Carlisle, PA. For the video category, the other finalists were John Suchocki, Shelburne, VT; and the team of Stéphane Durand, Susan Plante and Marc Seguin, Quebec, Canada.

[Adapted from The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science news release]


Learn more about Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge.

Learn more about the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook.