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Education Science

Grad Student Wins Alan Alda's Flame Challenge 161

eldavojohn writes "Scientists have long been criticized of their inability to communicate complex ideas adequately to the rest of society. Similar to his questions on PBS' Scientific American Frontiers, actor Alan Alda wrote to the journal Science with a proposition called The Flame Challenge (PDF). Contestants would have to explain a flame to an eleven-year-old kid, and the entries would be judged by thousands of children across the country. The winner of The Flame Challenge is quantum physics grad student Ben Ames, whose animated video covers concepts like pyrolysis, chemiluminescence, oxidation and incandescence boiled into a humorous video, complete with song. Now they are asking children age 10-12 to suggest the next question for the Flame Challenge. Kids out there, what would you like scientists to explain?"
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Grad Student Wins Alan Alda's Flame Challenge

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  • by cpu6502 ( 1960974 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @04:25PM (#40236801)

    Over-the-air channel 12-3 broadcasts an hour of Scientific American every day. Very well done (if a bit simplistic). They air other documentaries too. I remember when TLC used to have shows like this, but now it's PBS doing the job.

    • A bit off-topic, I apologize, but this is one of my main triggers.

      I also remember when The Learning Channel had learning shows, instead of reality TV [], and when the History Channel had history shows, instead of reality TV [](I'm too lazy to find more), and when Animal Planet had animal shows, instead of reality TV [], and so on, and so forth, I don't want to get more depressed than I currently am, so I'm not looking anymore up.

      It's a sign of the times that we must rely almost solely on PBS for actual, substantial

      • Thoughts?
        Agree 100%. This is why I don't have cable, and when I'm traveling and see cable in my hotel, I can't find anything worth watching. Even my former favorite Syfy has devolved into a reality/gameshow channel. About the only shows I still watch are iCarly (it's funny), South Park (also funny), and the movie marathons that air on weekends.

        I actually enjoy Antenna TV more than Cable TV, because they air classic shows like Hitchcock/Dragnet, news shows like RT/France24, old movies almost 24 hours a da

      • by eyenot ( 102141 )


        Just that I hope you're not dissing Alan Alda!

      • P.S. I misnamed channel 12-3 as PBS. It's actually "PBS Info" one of 6 different channels PBS is now producing for antenna viewers. (The others are the main channel, a kids channel, a music/concert channel, a home/life channel, and a few others I've forgotten.)

      • by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @05:13PM (#40237309)

        Why? Because we're all precious little snow-flakes, we all have interesting stories, and we all deserve our own television show.

        Nope. Wrong.

        The mass marketing of specialized channels happened because there simply weren't enough specialized viewers to keep the specialization afloat. They all had to start creating new stuff to draw more eyeballs for the advertisers.

        MTV was an early victim. People got tired of watching music videos and they had to expand into whatever was edgy and new for the demographic they sought. That's why we have Real World and Road Rules and The Challenge XXI and "Pregnant at 16" and whatever other stuff they can draw people to. "Made" is homage to the fact that MTV has changed from music TV into "teen TV" but just not been honest enough to change the name.

        It is an insidious problem. AMC (American MOVIE CLASSICS) has created new TV series (Mad Men) and is now heavy into "CSI Miami". Even TVLand has fallen into the trap, airing new sitcoms they've produced.

        It was a grand and glorious vision in the 80's. 500 specialized channels so anyone could find the kind of material they wanted to watch anytime. Cable networks starting up to do the equivalent of "The Scotch Tape Store" or "Spatula City". And then finding out that fractional audiences brought fractional ad revenues.

        PBS gets away with it because they have convinced donors that they are special and it's an honor to give lots of money ( a rich people demonstration of social responsibility), they have convinced advertisers to pay for ads that are almost not ads ("this show is funded by ..."), and use a lot of BBC produced programs to draw viewers that will pay to keep the transmitters fed with electrons.

        PBS is, however, far from the "if not PBS, then who..." they were close to being many years ago. I was going to say british sitcoms are "if not PBS, then BBC America", but even BBCA has fallen into the trap and is busy showing lots of US shows --- at least any US show that has Gordon Ramsay as the host.

        • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )
          Insightful. I'd feel gloomy about the failure of specialized channels, except I think most of us will eventually get by well enough with streaming services like Netflix and the like, where you can grab what you like from a pool of everything. The only concern there is that there's enough money, somewhere, to fund the right variety of shows in the first place so they're available to watch.
          • I'm disappointed the Sci-Fi is no longer sci-fi/fantasy. I'm disappointed that History Channel no longer shows history, but instead shows the present. Well that's about it. I didn't watch much else.

            BTW music television exists on Antenna television. It's called CoolTV and they play blocks like "70s rock" or "cool 80s" and then modern music the rest of the time.

            And yes I watch Ghost Hunters. On hulu. I fast-forward to the "reveal" because that's where all the "action" happens. If they ever find somethi

        • Do you have evidence for "people got tired of music videos", or is that just a guess? Because I would say Viacom buying MTV in '85 was its death knell, although it took Viacom a few years to really figure out what to put on MTV.

          Not everyone non-music video show on MTV was bad though. Look at Liquid Television – they showed fairly avant garde shows like Aeon Flux.

          And according to Wikipedia, MTV dropped the tagline "Music Television" in 2010. So that last lip service to music has finally been expunged.

          • Do you have evidence for "people got tired of music videos", or is that just a guess? Because I would say Viacom buying MTV in '85 was its death knell, although it took Viacom a few years to really figure out what to put on MTV.

            MTV was doing ok with music videos as its niche format for many years. If MTV had kept doing well, Viacom would have had no decisions to make, and no reason to change formats. The change wasn't trying to get away from a successful channel, it was trying to fix a broken one. Part of the problem was that VH1 stole the "hits", and CMT stole country. One success spawned multiple copies, and thence multiple failures.

            Not everyone non-music video show on MTV was bad though. Look at Liquid Television â"

            I didn't say that they were bad, they were just not music television. Real World dealt with som

            • I agree with you and like your comments, but people are missing an important event that explains why we have so many "reality" TV shows, and that is the 2007-2008 writer's strike. With no new scripts for their TV shows for 14 weeks, TV execs needed to replace the shows with something. It turned out that pointing a camera at a bunch of jerks and then slapping a title on it was cheap, easy, and didn't require an expensive writer. Just people that in many cases were happy to be stupid on TV for free if they go
              • I would add two more points.
                I like the point about the writers strike but I would tkae it further. once the tv execs realized that people would watch unscripted tv, they realized they didn't need to pay (as many) script writers for a popular product. The studios like it b/c it is cheaper and the public likes it b/c it is 'easier' to watch people bumble about ( and not have to think about strenuous things like 'plot'.)

                I think the point about viacom changing mtv b/c it wasn't successful isn't entirely true.

                • MTV (and several of these niche channels) could probably make a bit of money, but the amount they were making wasn't expanding (quickly enough). As a public company, if you can't show growth, you die so just making money isn't enough. This drives business that are mildly successful (continually bringing in, say, expenses + 5%) to drastic changes in the name of growth. stability is just not valued. I see this as a major problem across sectors and I think the move from music to reality tv from mtv was likely done in the name of growth, rather than to avoid losses.

                  This can't be said loudly enough. There are loads of great niche products that try to expand out of their niche in the name of 'moar moneys!'. Tons of niche games, shows, electronics, etc. are doing fine. They're making money, they are profitable. But as the parent says, stability has no value. GROWTH has become the byword and if you can't show growth, then you get the axe (for any company, but it's orders of magnitude worse at publicly traded companies). This inevitably leads to niche products/servic

          • Do you have evidence for "people got tired of music videos", or is that just a guess?

            It wasn't that people got tired of them, it was that ratings for non-videos shows got higher ratings than videos.

            This is the book I remember reading about MTV, that covered the issue. []

        • I can see it now ... from MTV to TTV as in Teen TV. Then people will read that as Titty TV and that is what it will become
        • by Stele ( 9443 )

          It was a grand and glorious vision in the 80's. 500 specialized channels so anyone could find the kind of material they wanted to watch anytime. Cable networks starting up to do the equivalent of "The Scotch Tape Store" or "Spatula City".

          Yes but where else are you going to go to get all your name-brand spatulas at half the retail price?
          Last week I bought ten spatulas, and I got one more for just a penny!

        • 500 specialized channels so anyone could find the kind of material they wanted to watch anytime.

          Remindes me of Wierd Al's [] Cable TV []

          I got celebrity hockey
          The Racketball Channel too

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        You forgot ghosts and aliens.

        If I see that orange guy that is just abosolutely positive that aliens are milking our prostates to create alien-human hybrid living spacecraft to deliver pyramid materials to far-off galaxies... I'm gunna throw my TV out the window. The best part is that H presents him like an expert. Whatever the fuck an "expert" in active alien conspiracies is, I'll never know.

        As for all the fucking retarded ghost shows, they just repeat the same nonsense, over and over.

        "That has to be a gh

        • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )
          I watched a season of Ghost Hunters specifically to laugh at the silly acting every time there was a weird noise. I spent a lot of time thinking about doing a parody of their style, but with really obvious sources for the "strange activity."

          More recently I've been a little impressed with a show that goes to a lot of trouble trying to debunk and/or recreate "supernatural" pictures and videos. They're still a little accepting of the idea that it *might* be a ghost or bigfoot or whatever for my tastes, but
          • Most of those shows have really obvious sources for the "strange activity" already. If I see one more freaking blob of out-of-focus dust (i.e. "an orb") I'm going to lose it. I really can't believe the guys on the show actually believe. It's so bad.

            I think you're thinking of Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files.

            I'd absolutely love to believe in all this hokum, but I simply can't. Still, I love Ancient Aliens. It's just good fun to me.

        • You forgot ghosts and aliens.

          If I see that orange guy


      • Yeah PBS and Nova rock. I have an engineering buddy that saves me a copy of good Nova and PBS documentaries and they never fail to be engaging. I recently watched "Absolute Zero" which went from the first experiments to understand what cold was all the way up to making the first Bose Einstein Condensate and it was really REALLY good. They give you a good starting out point if you wish to learn more without piling on so much technobabble that those without a degree in the field they are talking about can't k

        • I like Nova and a lot of other PBS documentaries, AND a bunch of the reality shows (not "Jersey Shore"). It's possible to like and enjoy both.

      • The History Channel just aired "The Hatfields & The McCoys", and got the highest ratings ever for a cable channel.

        • Doesn't that make you want to throw up?
          • No.. It's a good thing, since it was mostly historically accurate (the one issue I heard about is that the one judge in the movie was really a composite of two different judges).

            It was a very entertaining miniseries.

    • by Hatta ( 162192 )

      I remember when TLC used to have shows like this, but now it's PBS doing the job.

      Thank you socialism.

    • now it's PBS doing the job

      Nova's been on the air since 1974. Either you're really old or you aren't giving PBS enough credit for always having good science shows.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @04:27PM (#40236817)

    And I don't wanna talk to a scientist

  • by fallen1 ( 230220 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @04:30PM (#40236865) Homepage

    I'd enjoy hearing the explanation behind how women's minds work. Seriously. I'm sure most guys out there have experienced the "I think I've finally figured out most of what makes her tick. Now I just need to.. what the fuck?! She just did the opposite of what I.. never mind, I give up."

    Oh, wait, this is /. I'm talking about... ;-)

    • Bought this 20 years ago, and it helped immensely (though it's only the beginning of understanding; every martian/venusian is different) : []

      • You know, there are a lot of downsides to being gay and not a lot of upsides, but at least I've never seen a book titled Bears are from Mars, twinks are from Venus.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Most non-boring men are complicated too. It just seems that some men whine a lot more about it.

      So please get over this overused trope. I don't come here to have my gender made fun of. It's getting pretty tiring getting hit with this ridiculousness in the middle of reading actual decent comments.

      • Men are complicated in much less strange ways. It's not like each and every one of us doesn't deal with both men and women in a variety of relationships all the time.

        • The ways are "much less strange" because you are a man. Believe it or not, if you are a complicated man you are just as strange a creature to a woman as a complicated woman is to you.

          Unlike the original poster, when I think I have a woman figured out and she does the opposite of what I think she is going to do, I don't say "I give up" I say "Wonderful!" Who wants a boring, predictable lover? Maybe boring, predictable people, but not me.

          • Yeah, but if you think you have a man figured out and then find you haven't, he's not mad at you for that. Most men will take it as a welcome opportunity to explain how rational we are (and talk about ourselves for a bit).

            If you're in a serious relationship with a woman and she realises that you don't understand something about her, then that's apparently cause for a fight/crying.
            Somehow she can be as irrational as she likes and if you don't understand her that's because you don't love her enough.
            Asking her

    • by Velex ( 120469 )

      The way women's minds work is very simple. You start with the way a man's mind works, and then you take away reason and accountability. Perhaps whoever originally wrote that meant it as some kind representation of misogyny only to be conquered when the character got laid, thus proving that the root of all misogyny is sexual frustration.

      On the other hand, it does work marvelously well. The other trick is when she inevitably gets her feelings hurt (like when you suggest one interpretation of the client'

    • I'd enjoy hearing the explanation behind how women's minds work.

      This will provide some useful insights: Láadan [].

    • Actually, the main thing isn't that men and women work that differently.
      Granted, certain things differ somewhat.

      However, the main thing is that when you live with someone, you REALLY get to know them.
      Very few people have the same set of priorities as you do, also, they don't function the same mentally, physically or socially.
      Meaning, as you understand more and more about just how different the one you are living with is from you, you get more and more perplexed.

      This problem isn't lessened for gay people.


  • Why is Jersey Shore still on the air? That, or as I'm sure a little dude would suggest, why do 'splosion 'splode?
  • It was last weekend. Alda's Flame presentation was one of 41 pieces. I saw four presentations, but not Alda's. The four were in the "Big ideas" track and panels on currently practicing researchers on a specific topic. And I learned more than I had expected. The were other tracks on the arts and for children. I'd recommend this conference to others, even if you work it into a NYC vacation which I did.
  • by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @05:08PM (#40237267)

    It's a great explanation, but why does it feel like it's explaining it to a 6-year-old?

    I have a hard time imagining my 11-year-old self taking it serious at all.

    Personally I think they should change the challenge a bit. Explain X to an adult, but in a way that an 11-year-old can grasp.

    Stop talking down to kids.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The thing is, it's talking down but it's also spouting all kinds of random vocabulary that they don't need. Getting a basic understanding of the concept is much more important than knowing what everything's called.

      • by sloth jr ( 88200 )
        It's setting the hook; you use the actual words out so that someone who does get interested in this stuff has a jumping off place for, at the very least, a wikipedia fishing trip.
  • I'm for explaining how tides and currents work.. Why the ocean is higher at some point in the day, but lower in others... What's it like beneath the surface when the water is calm... That stuff...

    I hate deep water too, deathly afraid of it.
  • . . . . so any kids will, too. Pity that I never saw this when I was their age.
  • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 )

    Alda is quite the personality and has

    How about these questions:

    * Why is the sky blue?
    * Why does water freeze?
    * How is charcoal made? (relating it to fire, of course)

    For those who are curious, he had an interesting discussion with Bob Osserman entitled M*A*T*H some years ago. You can download the video of it here:

  • They'd do it and be great at it, if our country valued science a little more.
  • Finally! Now I can explain to my bosses what the Flame virus means! 11-year old is exactly the level of understanding we need.

    RTFA and cry. This is the wrong flame!

    First, everybody knows it's there. Then, it has been there for millennia. Finally, nobody is afraid of it.

    What a disappointment.

Matter cannot be created or destroyed, nor can it be returned without a receipt.