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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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  • Re:Next Question? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by eyenot ( 102141 ) <> on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @04:47PM (#40237059) Homepage

    God, dude. Alan Alda has made significant contributions to the public understanding of science through hosting a show about it. He never plays the smart-ass, he's always unassuming and humble, and through that honesty (and by way of interviewing authorities on various subjects) he brings the most complex scientific concepts down to a common level that most people can understand. It's why his show is so popular. So, it may have been quite awhile since M*A*S*H* but that doesn't mean he hasn't stayed relevant. In fact, if Alan Alda wanted to interview a famous scientist -- better yet, YOUR favorite famous scientist, take your pick (I'll pick Stephen Hawking for you in your absence) -- he would get that interview at nearly a moment's notice! There's no scientist who wouldn't want to be interviewed by him and seen on his show. So, Big-Mouth, how many famous scientists can you speak with whenever you feel like it?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @05:03PM (#40237217)

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @05:20PM (#40237391)

    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 JWSmythe ( 446288 ) <jwsmythe@PASCALj ... m minus language> on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @05:46PM (#40237647) Homepage Journal

    It sounds like the whole cycle. Dating, marriage, and divorce.

        I worked with a guy once, who said that everything a woman said could be summarized to "I want ..." and "I need ...". The second could still be summarized as "I want ..."

        I waited years to prove him wrong. I couldn't. When he was around, and a woman was talking, I was always waiting to be able to say "See, she didn't say want or need!" It wasn't necessarily in the first few seconds of talking, but those were just the introduction to "I want..." or "I need..." In the end, it usually involves money. Sometimes directly like "I need $20". Sometimes indirectly "Wouldn't it be nice if we had a new car?" (meaning, "I want a new car.")

        There are exceptions to this. She is my girlfriend. :) There may be others out there, but you'll be hard pressed to find one.

        Those who deny it, are ignoring what's really being said.

        And now that you've read this, you'll see how often it does occur.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @06:12PM (#40237911)

    I think that is a natural result of someone being in the education system (eg. a grad student like we see here). It's what they know and what they're used to.

    That's exactly the way most teaching takes place and it's idiotic.

  • by FrootLoops ( 1817694 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @07:37PM (#40238773)

    Verily, betimes jargon need be eschewed for the erudition of the laity.
    Err--I mean, sometimes avoiding big words is the best way to teach people something.

    That's not universally true though. Some concepts are just complicated and avoiding jargon makes them harder to understand--in the long term. An example from math:

    Jargon-filled: "An nth degree polynomial has at most n roots."
    Non-jargony: "Suppose you are given a starting number and have a fixed process you use to create an ending number. Let's also say the process has a few rules. You begin with the starting number and are allowed to do three types of operations on your current number: (1) add a number from a list you chose beforehand; (2) multiply by a number from a list you chose beforehand; or (3) multiply by the starting number. For how many starting numbers can your process end up creating 0? It turns out the answer is at most the number of times you used operation (3), plus one, unless you multiplied by 0 at some point in operation (2) in which case every ending number is 0."

    Now suppose you were interested in proving the statement. The jargon-filled version can be followed up by basic properties of polynomial factorization which gives the result quickly. You could translate those properties without jargon but there would be three long-term problems: (1) the result would not be very memorable since the important individual ideas wouldn't be picked out for special emphasis with special words; (2) the ideas presented wouldn't be very portable (that is, applicable to other problems) since they're not clearly broken into usable pieces; (3) it would take a long time to communicate with others on similar topics without jargon (they'd invent their own, actually).

    Still, when teaching things to a general audience that probably won't continue down a particular line of inquiry, jargon is a bad plan.

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