Three months ago Alan Alda issued a challenge to the world scientific community to explain the flame in a way “that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun.” Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science administered the challenge, collecting entries and employing 6,000 11-year-olds to evaluate them. The winning entry, from 31-year-old American PhD candidate Ben Ames, was announced a little over a week ago.
Alda, best known for his role on TV’s M*A*S*H*, was instrumental in the creation of the Center for Communicating Science and traces his interest in the flame question to a disappointing answer he received when he himself was 11. (“It’s oxidation,” he was told.) Now 76, he hopes he can help a newer generation find the answer he was searching for. “So here I am—I’m 11 years old and looking up at you with the wide eyes of curiosity,” he wrote in the Science guest editorial that initiated the challenge, “What is a flame? What’s going on in there? What will you tell me?”
Ames’s 7-minute explanation–full of color, wit, and helpful labels–details the process to an imaginary prisoner in a hellish landscape and culminates in a song he wrote to solidify his message. He told the Center for communicating Science:
I also have a passion for music, film, and the performing arts. So when I learned about this wonderful contest, I had finally found a project where I could put all of my interests to use. I locked myself in my basement for a solid week, writing, narrating, animating, and composing every element of the film.
When not explaining complex scientific concepts to children, Ames studies quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.