As a curious 11-year-old, Alan Alda asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” She replied: “It’s oxidation.” Alda went on to win fame as an actor and writer, became an advocate for clear communication of science, and helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He never stopped being curious, and he never forgot how disappointing that non-answer answer was.
So when he was invited to contribute a guest editorial to the journal Science, he wrote about why we need scientists to communicate clearly and vividly with the public. And he issued the Flame Challenge:
"I’d like to try a playful experiment. Would you be willing to have a go at writing your own explanation of what a flame is—one that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun? The Center for Communicating Science is looking for new ways to light up people’s minds with science, and you might point the way. We’ll try out the entries on real 11-year-olds and see which work best. . . .
So here I am—I’m 11 years old and looking up at you with the wide eyes of curiosity. What is a flame? What’s going on in there? What will you tell me?"
This ordeal is like a fire tempering a sword. It's making chewy even tougher. If he got leprosy and his arm fell off, he'd beat the shit out of a bear, dip his stump in lemon juice and sew it back on with his good hand.
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