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Science: Fanning the Flames of Science Communication

As a curious 11-year-old, Alan Alda posed the question “What is a flame?” to his teacher. An unsatisfactory answer left him discouraged. More than 50 years later, the former M*A*S*H star and current faculty member at the State University of New York’s Center for Communicating Science makes the case for communicating science with clarity (and charm) in a recent editorial in the 1 March issue of the journal Science.

The Flame Challenge, sponsored by the Center for Communicating Science, is an attempt to reach the very core of science communication. The contest asks scientists to submit their own explanations of what a flame is—explanations that would captivate an 11-year-old. Alda and colleagues will try out the entries on real kids and see ones which work best.

“If you connect with the people you are communicating with in a human way, the chance of real communication taking place is greater,” Alda said in a 1 March teleconference with journalists, noting that next year’s challenge question will come from an 11-year-old.

The Flame Challenge contest is open for entries between 2 March and 2 April, with the winners to be announced in June. Entries can be in writing, video, or graphics, and they can be playful or serious, as long as they are accurate and connect with the young judges. For more information and entry forms, visit the Challenge Web site.


Read the editorial, “The Flame Challenge,” by Alan Alda. (free with registration)