Skip to main content

The Clock Starts Now: Can You Explain Time to an 11-Year-Old?

Actor Alan Alda is challenging scientists once again to answer a basic science question in language that will engage and enlighten 11-year-olds. He and the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science have launched the second edition of the Flame Challenge.

Last year, Alda asked: “What is a flame?” It was a question he had grappled with as a youngster and had received an unsatisfactory answer from his teacher. Alda issued his challenge in a commentary (registration required) in Science. More than 800 answers were submitted by scientists from around the world. The winning entry, a cartoon video with an original song, was created by Ben Ames, an American graduate student in physics at Austria’s University of Innsbruck.

The question for this year’s contest, selected from 300 submissions by children, is: “What is time?” Scientists have until 1 March 2013 to submit their answers in writing, video, or graphics. This year, winners will be named in two categories: written and visual. For more information on the contest, sponsored by AAAS and the American Chemical Society, visit the Flame Challenge.

“Last year’s contest question came from a real 11-year-old: me,” Alda said. “But when I asked what a flame was at the age of 11, I was probably younger in some ways than most 11-year-olds are now. They’re asking a very deep question this year. It’s going to be fun to see how scientists around the world answer that one in everyday language.”

According to the Stony Brook center, which Alda helped to found, the question “What is time?” was submitted by students around the country. Some asked exactly that question, while others asked related questions, such as: How do you make a time machine? Why can’t you go back in time? Is time an arrow? Is it a wave? How can you tell what time it is without looking at a clock? How many dimensions are there? How did time begin?


Alan Alda
Alan Alda


Sydney Allison, 11, a sixth-grader at Gomm Elementary School in Reno, Nevada, and Simon O’Rourke, 10, a fourth-grader at F.E. Bellows Elementary School in Mamaroneck, New York, were selected to represent those questioners.

Contest entries will be screened for scientific accuracy and then judged by 11-year-olds. More than 5000 children already have registered through their schools to serve as Flame Challenge judges.


Learn more about Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge and this year’s question, What is Time?

Learn more about the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science.