Let me set the scene:
You are in Washington, D.C. to meet with your congressional member during an APS Congressional Visits Day (CVD). You are enthusiastic about your research and need to convey why it is important and why your congressional member should continue to support funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy, etc.
You say: “Congressman X, I work in materials physics. My areas of interest include diamond and other wide band gap semiconductors, nanostructures, semiconductor surface processing, heteroepitaxy on si, silicide formation, raman scattering and surface science. I hope that you will support strong funding for the NSF.”
The response: “Huh?”
Aye, there’s the rub. What you do important, even seminal research, at least to you. But, because you conveyed it the way you did, the congressional member, a non-scientist, has no clue what you mean or why it matters to him or his constituents.
Actor, author and science booster Alan Alda empathizes with that sentiment. And he’s doing something about it.
As an 11-year old, Mr. Alda contemplated the flame at the end of a candle. He watched it. He ruminated upon it. And he finally asked his teacher at school about it.
“What is a flame?”
His teacher gave him a confusing answer, he said. “It’s oxidation.”
Mr. Alda recently revisited the question by issuing a challenge to scientists around the world. Make science understandable to non-scientists. Make is clear to an 11-year-old.
Thus, the Flame Challenge was born. In a March 2, 2012, editorial for Science Magazine, Mr. Alda beautifully captured why so many people find science unreachable, foreign, alien and cold.
“…. I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name. That was a discouraging moment for me personally, but decades later, I see the failure to communicate science with clarity as far more serious for society. We feel the disconnect all around us, from a common misimpression that evolution is the theory that we’re descended from monkeys, to the worry that physicists in Geneva might suck the universe into a teacup—or something uncomfortably smaller.”
Mr. Alda passionately believes that “scientists need to be able to speak with clarity to funders, policy-makers, students, the general public, and even other scientists.” He has helped to establish a Center for Communicating Science in the School of Journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The center is dedicated to helping scientists across all disciplines develop skills to effectively communicate science – their science – to the layperson, though methods such as role-playing.
At the close of his Science editorial, Mr. Alda issued a 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…..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?”
The flame challenge proved to be very popular, receiving nearly 1,000 entries from throughout the world. The kids reviewed them. And then, the winner was chosen during the Fifth Annual World Science Festival on June 2 in New York.
The winner: an American working on his Ph.D. in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Originally from Kansas City, MO, Ben Ames submitted a self-produced, seven-minute video, complete with a theme song he penned, cheeky, colorful graphics and lively narration to demonstrate what a flame is in terms an 11-year-old could understand. Or even a Member of Congress.
It reminded me of the Schoolhouse Rock episodes I saw as a kid. They left such an indelible impression on me. And now, many years later, I can recite almost every one. I even received extra credit on an exam in the ninth grade because of an episode featuring colorful details and a catchy tune about the preamble to the Constitution.
After watching Ben’s entry for the Flame Challenge, I suggested that he join APS – he is a physicist, after all. But more importantly, the response to the Flame Challenge and Ben’s winning entry demonstrate the importance of boiling down a complex scientific principle into digestible terms without diluting the facts.
It can be done. Ben proved that. The experiment now needs to be replicated.
More scientists must develop these skills. They are as important as getting published or earning tenure. Doing so will result in a more informed electorate who understands why science is important to their lives. It will also help ensure that Members of Congress who ignore the importance of science will do so at their own electoral peril.