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Alan Alda's Latest Science Challenge: What is Sleep?

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AP Photo/Richard Drew
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How would you explain sleep to an 11-year-old? That's the question scientists around the world will attempt to answer for a competition that's to be judged at Stony Brook University this spring. It's called The Flame Challenge. It's an annual competition organized by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Actor Alan Alda is the inspiration behind the challenge. He says the idea came out of his own life.

"I was 11 years old and I was really fascinated with the flame at the end of a candle. So I asked the teacher, what's going on in there? What's happening in a flame? She said oxidation and she didn't seem to think it was important to say anymore than that. And I was totally lost. I had no idea what it was."

I thought this is a really good chance to have a contest for scientists to see if they can answer what a flame is so an 11-year-old can not only understand it but be delighted by it and want to know more. - Alan Alda

Many years later, when Alda was writing an article about communicating science to the general population, he remembered this incident and took it as an opportunity to finally get his question answered.

The competition is still called The Flame Challenge, but each year they answer a different question presented by an 11-year-old student. So far the challenge has explored "What is time?" and "What is color?"

This year's question came from a student from Long Island. Alda says, "The boy who came up with it was quoted in the paper as saying this terrific thing. He said, 'I hope the winner is easy to understand and complete so I can stop thinking about this.' It's something that really concerns him."

The deadline to enter the challenge is Feb. 13.

Alan Alda Interview Excerpts from WSHU's Morning Edition with Tom Kuser:

Is there something lacking in the way science is explained today?

In your question you use the word today. And I think that's a very important word. I wrote a play about Marie Curie. And I was very impressed reading her description of radioactivity and how she arrived at the results of her earlier experiments. And it was extremely clear. She told it in very simple everyday terms. She told a story. You don't see that now. I guess because of specialization and because so much is known you have to represent it with complex shorthand where a few letters stands for five pages of material. Scientists have to do that to communicate with one another. But when they're communicating with us they have to have a whole other way of doing it. They have to tell us stories. They have to use words that occasionally evoke some emotion in us so we'll grasp it and remember it better. There's a lot that scientists can do. And one of the first steps is to realize it's not that easy to communicate with an 11-year-old.

What kind of response did you get from scientists to this kind of a challenge? Did they feel ill at ease at the suggestion that they didn't know how to communicate with an 11-year-old?

You know, that's interesting. It kind of ran a wide gamut. One person wrote in and said, "how am I supposed to know how to talk to an 11-year-old? Should I read a book?" We thought maybe you should just go talk to an 11-year-old and see what it's like. I mean that's like basic research. But many other people really got into it and really tried to communicate with respect to the 11-year-olds because they don't want to be talked down to. One kid said the first year, "it's OK to be funny. We appreciate that but you don't have to be silly." He said, "after all, we're 11, not 7."

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including founding producer of the midday talk show, The Full Story.