Every year, Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge asks scientists around the world to come up with an explanation for an everyday thing that is scientifically complicated, in a way that an 11-year-old can truly understand. Students then rate those explanations and pick a few winners. The very first one, in 2012, literally asked, “What is a flame?” Every year since the question has been different. “What is time?” “What is color?” It’s still refered to as The Flame Challenge, and the basic idea of making things easier to understand for young students remains the same.
This year the question was, “What is climate?” The winners were presented in a fun, new way — in the form of a game show. Winning entries in three categories were presented: Written, Graphic, and Video. After each, three teams of students were quizzed on topics related to them. I suppose this was meant as a confirmation, of sorts, that the explanations actually got the kids to understand the subject further. Then there was a final Lightning Round, covering climate change solutions.
The creator of this challenge, Alan Alda, has always been a great personality, from his days playing Hawkeye on the TV seriesM*A*S*H, to the host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, and as a science advocate in general. He continues to be a congenial fellow, even as he gets older, and his memory wasn’t what it used to be. It makes perfect sense that Alda would be responsible for producing such a great outreach program.
Round One: Weather vs. Climate
The winning Written entry for the challenge was provided by Soumyadeep Mukherjee, a postdoctoral researcher at Stony Brook University. He very cleverly described that, “Climate is how you plan for a vacation. Weather is how you pack for one.”
The students on stage were then asked if they could tell which phenomena were examples of weather, and which were climate. They’d have to know that individual hurricanes are weather, but a hurricane season is part of the climate, for instance.
Then we get to a really cool part — Alda and his co-host, meteorologist Bernadette Woods Placky, demonstrated how tornados work, by showing off one they had “trapped” in a box. Science demos like that really grab attention!
Round Two: Defining Climate
The winning entry in the Graphic category was developed by Michael Bronski, a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Berkeley. His animation summarized the major factors that go into climate, including the tilt of the Earth’s axis, ground elevation, nearness to water, etc. Then, once again, the students on stage were quizzed about that.
Did you know that the Amazon Rain Forest only has two seasons, wet and dry? Not four, like most of the populated parts of the world?
Round Three: Climate Change
For this round, an excerpt from the winner in the Video category was shown, which was produced by four Canadian scientists from the IISD Experimental Lakes Area. Cyndy Desjardins, a food web scientist, and Geoffrey Gunn, a satellite data analysis specialist, were there to explain more about it.
The clip shown compared climate to walking a dog (or, in this case, walking a person dressed as a penguin, for some reason). Climate is the walker, who has a general direction to go. Weather is the dog (or penguin), which ultimately follows along that direction, but it also wanders in an out of that exact path, on its own. The fact that the dog walker doesn’t stay in one place represents the idea that climate changes over time, but its path can still be predicted. The exact details of how the dog will walk are much less predictable, even though we can say it always moves within a range of the walker.
If that sounds familiar, it might be because Neil deGrasse Tyson used that same analogy in his recent reboot of the Cosmos television series.
Round Four: Climate Change Solutions
Since there were only three categories of winners, this final round of questions for the students was a Lightning Round. They each answered a series of true/false questions, and a winner was determined.
The questions focused more on natural solutions to climate change, such as carbon sequestration in forests and oceans, and not so much in the realm of technological mitigations.
One more reason to participate in the World Science Festival is to enjoy creative ways to communicate complex scientific ideas, like the Flame Challenge does. It might’ve been nice, though, if we’d heard from some of the runners-up, to evaluate them for ourselves. They could make a few good points that the winning entries leave out.