The 2014 Flame Challenge Question: What Is Color?

“What is a flame?” asked the 11-year-old Alan Alda. “It’s oxidation!” his teacher answered, and that was that. Rather unsatisfying.

Many decades later this experience prompted Mr. Alda (and his eponymous Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook University) to initiate an annual contest called “The Flame Challenge.” The Flame Challenge invites working scientists to answer a simple question, generated by 11-year-olds, both simply and accurately. Then (after screening for scientific accuracy), 11-year-olds judge the answers. The genius of this contest is the way that it connects children and scientists, two naturally curious groups of people who ought to be talking to each other more often, but whose communication is too often impeded by a language barrier.

For me as a scientist, the prompt to explain a scientific concept – this year’s question was “What is color?” – was an opportunity both to practice effective science communication and to reinvigorate my enthusiasm for science by trying to adopt the perspective of an 11-year-old.

So, you might or might not be asking, what is color? What follows is my attempt at an answer. Whether you’re 11 or not, I hope you enjoy it! Wish me luck in the contest!