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What is Sound? "Flame Challenge" Winners Have Answers

Vibrations in audio speakers, reflections of light, and pixels in a camera were among some of the examples used to tackle the question “What is Sound?” in the fifth annual Flame Challenge conducted by Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

Alda, an acclaimed actor, writer and science advocate, announced the winners of the contest ─ which is co-sponsored by AAAS ─ at the World Science Festival in New York City on June 5. Nick Lucid, a physicist from Michigan who enticed kids with his descriptions of air wiggles, was the winner in the video category. Lucid has a master’s degree in physics from Eastern Michigan University and has been teaching college physics and explaining complex science in a clear and vivid way to the public on his YouTube channel: The Science Asylum.

What is Sound? (Flame Challenge 2016) from Nick Lucid on Vimeo.

Bruce Goldstein, the winner in the written category [link-scroll down], painted a picture of sound by describing vibrations on a drum. Goldstein is an associate professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Arizona.

The winners each received a $1,000 prize, as well as congratulations from Alda and hundreds of children at the “What Is Sound?” event at the science festival in Manhattan.

The Flame Challenge asked scientists to answer the question “what is sound?” in a way that would interest and enlighten 11-year-olds. More than 26,000 schoolchildren judged the entries, including children in Australia, Canada, China, England, Germany, India, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sultanate of Oman, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Italy, as well as in the United States.

The Flame Challenge encourages scientists to explain complex material in ways non-scientists can understand. The first year’s question, “What is a flame?” was one that Alan Alda had asked when he was 11. The American Chemical Society is a co-sponsor of the contest with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The winning entries, as well as other finalists, can be seen at the Flame Challenge website.

“It’s important for scientists to be challenged as a part of the scientific process” Lucid said. “The Flame Challenge carries that philosophy into science education. Whether they’re competing or just watching, it helps scientists improve their educational ability by reminding them they weren’t always adults…If that science is also communicated in an entertaining way, it has the power to inspire children and adults alike to pay attention to the world around them and maybe even pursue science as a career. As a society, we need effective scientific communication as we face future challenges.” His advice to scientists out there: “the best way to teach kids is to find your inner child.”

Goldstein said the Flame Challenge is important because, “science is a mystery to many people, so it is important to be able to communicate it in a way that they will find accessible, and in a way that enables them to appreciate the important role that science plays in their lives…I hope the Flame Challenge helps students experience the excitement of science and see the beauty of science.” As a college professor his biggest challenge in entering the contest was not just describing sound in and accurate and exciting way, but, “writing in a way that would be interesting to 11 year-olds, while not talking down to them.”

“Congratulations to the winners of the 2016 Flame Challenge,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “The genius of the Flame Challenge is to take a deceptively simple and obvious question that is actually rich and layered and can get a child to think more deeply about the world of science. `What is Sound?’ is a thought-provoking subject for scientists and students alike to tackle. To be able to explain the complex nature of sound to children, yet make it fun and accessible to them, is an achievement worth acknowledging. AAAS is proud to be a sponsor of the competition, and to help encourage scientific thought and creativity for all ages.”

The Alda Center was established in 2009 at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York, with the cooperation of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It was named after Alda, a visiting professor at Stony Brook, in 2013.

(Adapted from an Alda Center news release.)

Associated image from: What is Sound? Flame Challenge 2016