Thursday, April 26, 2012

A flame is a plasma, after all, so PPPL joins a contest

Andrew Zwicker, a physicist at PPPL who heads science education, working with Aliya Merali.

More than 800 scientists. Nearly 5,000 students.

That’s how many people are involved in what ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer has called “the most inspired contest on the planet.”

In March, actor Alan Alda wrote a provocative editorial in the renowned journal Science. The title of his column, “The Flame Challenge,” described how he, as an 11-year-old, stared at a candle flame and wondered what it was. He wasn’t looking for overly simple answers – he wanted a step-by-step style of conversation that would lead to understanding. When he queried one teacher he thought he could approach, he received a disappointing answer. “What’s a flame?” he asked. “Oxidation,” she said. Many decades later, he sees this continuing failure to properly communicate science as a society-wide problem.

For years, he has been doing his part to address that problem by hosting “Scientific American Frontiers” on public television. In the show, Alda interviews scientists about their work, helping them explain their research to intelligent non-scientists. Now, as a member of the faculty at the Center for Communicating Science at the State University of Stony Brook on Long Island, Alda has launched his own experiment. He announced the Flame Challenge contest ( in Science, asking scientists, educators, and students to submit short videos, essays or effective communications by any other means to explain the simple question he asked as a boy.

Andrew Zwicker, a physicist at PPPL who heads science education, came up with a version of the answer, working with Aliya Merali. You can view it here:


Submissions, which were due on April 2, have poured in from all over the world. According to a story on the website of the Center for Communicating Science, participants submitted 822 entries  from the U.S. and 30 other countries. The entries range from a sentence to tomes and from poetry – one poem is written in the shape of a flame – to live-action videos with special effects. Once volunteer scientists screen the submissions for accuracy, the entries are being sent to schools where 11-year-olds at more than 130 schools will judge them. The finalists will be posted on, and the winner will be announced at the World Science Festival in New York, New York in early June.

-- Kitta MacPherson