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Alan Alda's Challenge to Scientists: What is Time?


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. Of course we'll be keeping you up to date this hour on the shooting spree that's been going on in Newtown, Connecticut. But first something different. When Alan Alda was 11, he asked one of his teachers: What is a flame? The answer he got back was oxidation. Accurate, yeah, but not very helpful.

To promote better science communication, he started the Flame Challenge last year, and the contest was simple. Scientists around the world were invited to submit their best kid-friendly explanations of a flame. How do you explain a flame simply to a kid? A panel of 11-year-olds judged 800 - 800 entries - and chose a winner.

Well, when - Alan Alda is back with round two now. Here he is with the Flame Challenge, round two. It's not a flame this time. This time the kids have a more timely question in mind.


FLATOW: Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY again, Alan.

ALAN ALDA: Hi, thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: What is the - what was the winner, and how was it chosen?

ALDA: Well, the kids sent in suggestions for what this year's question should be, the 11-year-olds themselves, and a lot of them came in, hundreds came in. And they were narrowed down and sent back to the kids to vote on, and the one that we're using that came out on top with a tremendous number of votes is this very difficult question: What is time?

And this - in fact, what was amazing about this was last June, when we announced the winner of the first flame challenge, we said we're starting to ask kids for what they want to know about, so what questions should be in next year's contest. The first one that came in was from a nine-year-old boy who said what is time.

And he said: Is it OK? I'm only nine. I'm not 11.


ALDA: He's asking such a deep question.

FLATOW: And it's an age-old question, right?

ALDA: Yeah, yeah. And it's interesting because my question that I asked when I was 11, what is a flame, turned out to my surprise to be an extremely difficult question to answer. One or two scientists said this - the answer to this encompasses all the known structures in the universe. I don't know if it's that extreme, but that's what I heard.

So that turned out to be a very difficult question. But it was about a simple thing. This is a thing you can see, you can get burnt by it and that kind of thing. But what is time? That seems to be a much more abstract, a much more deep question. And it interests me. I wonder if 11-year-olds have become much more sophisticated since I was 11. It sounds like they have.

FLATOW: Well, you've been interviewing scientists for a long time. You know, certainly your "Scientific American Frontiers" series, you've come up against that question, or being asked all the time what is time.

ALDA: Well, I don't know. Usually it's always thought of - I mean it's usually thought of, at least in our daily lives, as something, a way to keep track of our events and a way to sort of be browbeaten by the succession of events. And then there's that great joke. I like it anyway.

FLATOW: Let's hear it.

ALDA: That time is what keeps everything from happening at once.


FLATOW: Very pithy, right to the point, time is what happens when nothing else is happening.

ALDA: But then you get into these very complex notions that time is - goes faster under certain conditions, or it slows down or comes to a stop. And this is really weird. And then there are the speculative ideas about can time go backwards.

FLATOW: Right. Why does it have to go forward?

ALDA: Yeah. Well...


ALDA: Well, it goes forward for me, that's all I know. But, you know, I love that - it's a positron, right, that's the opposite of the electron. So there's a wonderful passage in one of Richard Feynman's books, the great physicist Richard Feynman, and he has a diagram, and under the diagram he says this is a positron, which of course is an electron going backward in time.

See, now, I love - the part I love is of course...

FLATOW: Of course.

ALDA: Of course.


FLATOW: That's how Feynman used to speak.

ALDA: Now, I guess if you write it out in a formula, you can make it go backward in time, but I don't see how you can make it go backward in time in real life. I guess maybe it can at that scale. But all of these questions - somebody who tries to the answer the question, what is time, has to make a decision about how deep to go. And that's going to be interesting to see how they solve that problem.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Alan Alda and his new challenge, which is come up with a kid-friendly - who's eligible to win? What are the rules, and how do you win?

ALDA: You have to be a scientist, which is defined sort of broadly. You have to look at the rules to make sure. But it's roughly somebody studying to be a scientist or presently working as a scientist or teaching science. I don't want to get quoted on that too precisely. But it's roughly that on the website.

And kids are going to be judging, 11-year-olds, roughly 11-year-olds, are going to be judging all the entries. So they'll decide if they've really learned from this and if they feel it's sufficient enough, if the answer gives them enough to hang onto, because if it's just something short like time is what happens when things happen, forget it, you know.

But so now the kids are entered as judges in the contest by their teachers. So classes will be entered. And you know, we have already 7,300 kids signed up to judge.


ALDA: Last - and this is - the contest just opened a couple of days ago. Last year we had 6,000 altogether for the whole span of time. So I think this is going to really be a much bigger event.

FLATOW: And its deadline, when is it over? When does your last entry come? In the spring...

ALDA: In the spring sometime. Check the website, flamechallenge.org. And the winner will be announced June 1 at the World Science Festival.

FLATOW: Do you expect - now, an animation, a really cool animation, won the Flame Challenge.

ALDA: It was wonderful. Ben Ames won the Flame Challenge last year, and it was a great story. He was studying for his doctorate at Innsbruck in - what's the name of that country?

FLATOW: Austria.

ALDA: Austria, thank you.


FLATOW: You're getting as old as I am, Alan.

ALDA: No, I wasn't good at geography. So he said to his boss, I can't get this equipment to work, I'm going to take two weeks off because I heard Ira Flatow talking about this on a podcast, and I'm going to go home and I'm going to work on this. And he told his wife and daughter you won't see me for two weeks, I'll be in the basement building this animated cartoon.

And he wrote a song, and he performed on it. It was unbelievable, so good. And now look what's happened. He's gone on to create a startup company to do animated videos about science for kids on television. So it's spawning a whole other effort.

FLATOW: Yeah, all kinds of interest. Alan, we've run out of time. I want to thank you very much.

ALDA: Thank you.

FLATOW: Hopefully our podcast will do wonders for you again.

ALDA: Oh, thank you, and thanks for helping with the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook.

FLATOW: It's going well?

ALDA: Oh, it's going so well.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll talk about that next time you're here. We'll have to spend more time with you.

ALDA: Thanks so much.

FLATOW: Alan Alda is a founding member and visiting professor at the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York . Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.