Extra carbon will glow: red, orange, yellow.
June 8, 2012 12:23 PM   Subscribe

The Flame Challenge: The Center For Communicating Science asked scientists to answer the question, "What is a flame?," in a way that 11-year-olds would understand. Ben Ames won. In addition to his winning video, you can see the runners-up.
posted by OmieWise (56 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
A flame is a bilious rant posted on a computer-hosted message board. What do I win?
posted by Jestocost at 12:28 PM on June 8, 2012


Ben Ames won.

OK, now do magnets.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:30 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


No, a flame is a virus that was written by ASDF( sdxcvz#$@ NO CARRIER
posted by Old'n'Busted at 12:30 PM on June 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


I HAVE BEEN WONDERING ABOUT THIS FOR THE PAST TWO DECADES.

Thank you, Center for Communicating Science!
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:34 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


A person who can't get hired by a real hockey team?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:34 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dang that is very interesting! I did not know that about flames!
posted by rebent at 12:38 PM on June 8, 2012


I cannot pretend I knew any of that.

I hope he can do one about electricity. I really don't understand that at all.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:39 PM on June 8, 2012


His speaking voice sounds a bit like Weird Al.


...Weird Al should have a science series. With songs.
posted by curious nu at 12:41 PM on June 8, 2012


I just heard about this on Science Friday! The guests were Ben Ames and Alan Alda, and Alda asked Ames something about quantum effects and I wondered if I had misunderstood who Alan Alda was.

I am still not sure what Alan Alda was doing there.
posted by purpleclover at 12:43 PM on June 8, 2012


The good news is that I learned something.

The bad news is that I now have that damn song stuck in my head.

Still happy I watched it.
posted by MustardTent at 12:43 PM on June 8, 2012


I hope he can do one about electricity. I really don't understand that at all.

I don't think anyone does. Even physicists. I mean, they have the numbers and the equations, and they work, but that's not really the same as understanding it, I don't think.

Though, the basic idea of electricity being the motion of electrons is simple enough to explain to a 10 year old, I think.
posted by empath at 12:49 PM on June 8, 2012


A flame is a bilious rant posted on a computer-hosted message board. What do I win?

A chance to answer the question, "What does 'bilious' mean?," in a way that 11-year-olds would understand.
posted by griphus at 12:50 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Though, the basic idea of electricity being the motion of electrons is simple enough to explain to a 10 year old, I think.

You've lost me already.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:51 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, they're not quite eleven years old yet, but almost.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:52 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sticky Carpet:
Magnets
(Also discusses electrical charge)
posted by Hactar at 12:56 PM on June 8, 2012


I am still not sure what Alan Alda was doing there.

He used to be the host of Scientific American Frontiers, so I think he must have at least a slightly nerdy bent. His wikipedia entry seems to hint that he has done other science-related charity work.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:56 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Congrats to the lads & lasses and all that but that was awful Radiolabby for my personal tastes. Good on the kids though.
posted by Edogy at 1:04 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, Alan Alda asked the question about what a flame is and helped found The Center for Communicating Science.

Science Friday has a terrible site for mobile readers.
posted by purpleclover at 1:06 PM on June 8, 2012


Though, the basic idea of electricity being the motion of electrons is simple enough to explain to a 10 year old, I think.

Yeah, until you get to college and they tell you it's not the electrons that move, it's the HOLES. Wha? And you run screaming from the classroom because EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG.
posted by evilmomlady at 1:06 PM on June 8, 2012


evilmomlady: Actually it depends on the material.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:09 PM on June 8, 2012


The question for this project holds special meaning for me.

When I was a kid - about the age at which this project is targeted - I was with some other boys on a scout camping trip. It was dusk. We were all gathered around the fire, admiring our handiwork. I stared into the fire, this very question on my mind. So I asked the other boys: "Did you ever wonder what a flame is?" For a few seconds, no one said anything. Then one of the other boys laughed at the question. Then they all laughed. For years after that, the other boys mocked me by asking me in a stupid voice, "What's a flame?" and then laughing, as if asking the question was itself risible.

I have no idea what the other boys did with their lives, but I ended up a scientist. I hope this project helps other kids with the same question I had, and thousands of other questions, not feel like they're stupid to ask.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:18 PM on June 8, 2012 [42 favorites]


Hmm. So that video was awesome and I totally learned some things, but it still doesn't address the thing I've always (seriously, for DECADES now I've been hoping for an explanation that makes intuitive sense) found most confusing and brainfuckish about fire. Flames seem to give us all the right perceptual cues for seeing them as physical objects, maybe as globs of some sort of fluid. And yet, as I understand it, they're not physical objects in any meaningful sense, and this is just totally stressful and unfair.

So I mean, they have a spatial position and what look like well-defined edges. They appear to move from place to place — it would be more accurate to say that the site of the relevant reactions is changing, but it sure looks to us like the flame itself is moving. They tend to act like they have momentum — they'll "sway" back and forth like pendulums, or "pick up speed" and "slow down" gradually as they "move" from one piece of fuel to another, the same way that a massy moving object would. (As I understand it this is about oscillating or shifting air currents, and not at all about momentum, but it doesn't look that way.) They even act like they have surface tension in some situations — two flames that are close enough to each other will merge together; a flame with a single small fuel source will shrink inward from its edges if the fuel starts to run out.

It turns out this is all totally misleading and they don't really have any of these properties and can't really be understood as globs of fluid at all. But they fake it so well and — I've come to the conclusion that this is the crucial part here — the object-detecting bits of my visual cortex go "Yup, that's a cohesive chunk of matter all right," even though rationally I know it's not. It messes with my head.

Similarly upsetting non-object "objects": waves, currents and eddies in water; smoke rings; tornadoes and hurricanes; cracks, crevasses, gaps and holes; flocks of birds and ant trails; gliders.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:20 PM on June 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


What I'm tryna say is, Philosopher Dirtbike and I need to go camping.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:21 PM on June 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


I just like this thread because it gives me a semi-related excuse to use the term 'phlogiston'. Twice in one day! Now let's talk about the Luminiferous Aether, Vril, and/or phrenology. Wooo bunkum science!
posted by FatherDagon at 1:27 PM on June 8, 2012


Spoiler: Not only did I appreciate that this was an excellent explanation of the science of flames, but I was also pleased that it had a happy ending for that poor denizen of hell.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:28 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The glowing soot particles and burning gas ejecta all have momentum.
posted by Jpfed at 1:28 PM on June 8, 2012


nebulawindphone - Want some more fun? A being living about 1,000,000 faster than we do might describe you the same way.

Now pass that thing.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:39 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Similarly upsetting non-object "objects": waves, currents and eddies in water; smoke rings; tornadoes and hurricanes; cracks, crevasses, gaps and holes; flocks of birds and ant trails; gliders.

Also, electrons, photons, and pretty much everything else, including you.
posted by empath at 1:44 PM on June 8, 2012


Yeah, until you get to college and they tell you it's not the electrons that move, it's the HOLES. Wha? And you run screaming from the classroom because EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG.

Depends. In semi-conductors it's holes that move, but in most cases, it's electrons.
posted by empath at 1:45 PM on June 8, 2012


The glowing soot particles and burning gas ejecta all have momentum.

Right. But imagine pouring out a line of gasoline, let's say running straight north/south, and lighting a match at the south end. The flame's perceived trajectory is straight north. The individual trajectories of the soot particles are all higgledy-piggledy. Our inclination to treat the flame as a fluid running northward isn't explainable by the momentum of the particles.

Also, electrons, photons, and pretty much everything else, including you.

I KNOW! AND YOU'RE NOT HELPING!
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:47 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Your brain isn't hard-wired to give you an intuitive grasp on reality, your brain is hard-wired to help you run from fire.
posted by empath at 1:52 PM on June 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


For the price of one fighter jet - say an F-22 ($150,000,000) - how many video projects like this could be funded, including the cost of teaching kids how to present and animate scientific data, storytelling, production techniques, the whole enchilada? Which is the better investment for the future? Why don't we do this? Boggles the mind.
posted by dbiedny at 2:22 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's great! Thanks for linking it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:54 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I got to the point where he said, "It's just like that hit song!" I was gullible enough to think "What, what song?" before it started playing and then it was like, OH OF COURSE, NOT ONLY ARE YOU GREAT AT EXPLAINING THINGS BUT YOU ARE CLEVER AND CHEEKY AND A SONGWRITER and younger than me and I give up.
posted by psoas at 3:12 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Vimeo never works for me, so will have to content myself with pages 18-19 of the Golden book of Chemistry (which I really wish I had had as a kid.)
posted by Listener at 3:35 PM on June 8, 2012


I asked this question of a teacher once, and wasted half a class period picking and poking at her responses before I got a frustrated and defeated "I don't know."
posted by Mister Moofoo at 4:20 PM on June 8, 2012


A flame is gas that is hot enough that enough of the atoms are excited enough to emit enough electromagnetic radiation you can see it.

Any chemistry teacher should be capable of explaining this to an inquisitive 11 year old really fucking fast. A prize? A prize? Sheesh.

Some of those concepts are elusive to deep explanation (atoms are pretty easy for awhile but energy is fundamentally quite tricky); my sentence above should cover about 99.9999 % of practical applications for real teachers and real 11 year olds.
posted by bukvich at 4:29 PM on June 8, 2012


Did you even watch the video? Because your explanation was boring (and had an edge of "Does that satisfy you? Good, now leave me alone.") while the video was exciting and fun (and had an edge of "I'm so glad you asked. This is going to be cool.").
posted by benito.strauss at 4:43 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh, it's hot enough! Thanks for clearing everything up.
posted by found missing at 5:11 PM on June 8, 2012


I must be super awesome because I'm like, three times older than an eleven year old and part of the elusive 0.0001% who doesn't get it!
posted by iamkimiam at 5:20 PM on June 8, 2012


Hey, kid. It's hot and it glows, now go get me beer.
posted by found missing at 5:24 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Any chemistry teacher should be capable of explaining this to an inquisitive 11 year old really fucking fast. A prize? A prize? Sheesh.

Reciting facts is not the same as creating comprehension in the human mind.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:59 PM on June 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


I really want Ames to make more videos explaining science so I can try my hand at taking some Chemistry and Physics courses again. That was the first time I've had fire explained to me in a way that makes sense (and that I could actually memorize once I watched the video enough times).
posted by DisreputableDog at 6:17 PM on June 8, 2012


I can't be the only one who thinks it's weird to have a scientist in hell in a kid's science video in America. Or any concepts such as hell and the devil in science education. Seems like a nice set up for fundamentalist thinking. But I guess you need to work with the concepts that the little morons bring to class.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:17 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have no idea what the other boys did with their lives, but I ended up a scientist.

They grew up to be Republican congressmen.
posted by briank at 6:21 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's an online editing and compositing system of yore by Discreet running on an SGI Onyx.
posted by bz at 7:53 PM on June 8, 2012


OK, now do magnets.

And "dark matter." And "dark energy."
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:55 PM on June 8, 2012


Heard this on Science Friday today, and was totally captivated by it. I especially loved the portion of the conversation in which the two guests talked about the artistic aspect of scientists - Alda had this fascinating response about how all scientists by their very nature have loads of creativity, but perhaps there's also a simmering artistic vision within them that their craft doesn't necessarily let them explore, and how the making of this video brought those two worlds together. I found that genuinely inspiring,
posted by jbickers at 9:02 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh hey! I am so excited to see this posted here. I'm a science grad student at Stony Brook, and I've done some courses with the Center for Communicating Science over the past year and a half.* It's a really great program - the communication courses and improvisation workshops have been a fabulous opportunity for science grads. The Flame Challenge has been super interesting to follow.

I am still not sure what Alan Alda was doing there.

Alan Alda has been really involved with the Center here from the get-go. He ran a series of improv workshops for grad students to help them get more comfortable in explaining their research off-the-cuff. There's a really great video of those workshops on the Center's website. (I am still really disappointed that I wasn't able to go to the workshops that he headed - theater faculty run them now.) And yeah, as mentioned above, my understanding is that he's been interested in science communication for quite some time - as the host of Scientific American Frontiers, etc.

*If you click through to the blog linked at the top of the Center's page, I'm in there, although I've been horribly neglectful of it while working on my dissertation proposal. Finished my oral exams on Monday, though, so I can get back to the blog!
posted by pemberkins at 9:26 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's interesting that he didn't discuss black body radation, but rather analogized it with sticking a piece of metal in something hot. Also, I had no idea, I thought it was just hot gas giving off blackbody radiation.
Yeah, until you get to college and they tell you it's not the electrons that move, it's the HOLES. Wha? And you run screaming from the classroom because EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG.
Holes are an abstraction for the lack of an electron. It's actually the electrons that are 'moving', but it's easier to think about the lack of one electron at a certain place as being the 'thing' that moves. Think about a bubble in water it seems to be something that falls up, away from the earth, as if it were repelled by gravity. But really it's the lack of mass in a gravitational field, and water is falling 'around' it (of course the bubble is prevented from collapsing up by internal gas pressure, and it's shape is held by the water's surface tension, but whatever)
Hmm. So that video was awesome and I totally learned some things, but it still doesn't address the thing I've always (seriously, for DECADES now I've been hoping for an explanation that makes intuitive sense) found most confusing and brainfuckish about fire. Flames seem to give us all the right perceptual cues for seeing them as physical objects, maybe as globs of some sort of fluid. And yet, as I understand it, they're not physical objects in any meaningful sense, and this is just totally stressful and unfair.
They are as much things as anything else, and they are made out of a fluid, specifically a plasma everything is just made up of smaller bits. I guess the only difference with a flame is that the 'stuff' it's made out of is constantly cycled through and goes from being being in the candle, to being part of the plasma, to being exhaust. But at any moment there are definitely molecules that form part of the plasma and ones that do not (obviously there is a transition, but there is a transition between your own body and the rest of the universe as well. Some cells are obviously part of you, some are just dead skin or hairs waiting to drift away, and some are in between)

In fact, biological life is actually fairly similar to fire, they are both chemical reactions that grow, spread, reproduce and consume fuel and leave behind waste products, and when the fuel is gone the reaction stops and then it goes away, and there is more entropy then there was before.
And "dark matter." And "dark energy."
Dark matter is a gap, like a bubble or an electron hole. Except it's a gap in knowledge. We don't know what it is. It's like an X in an equation that physicists are trying to solve. They could have called it X-Matter. It was originally called dark matter simply because it couldn't be seen, and people thought it might just be planets or rocks or something. (In fact, planets, the earth, and all other non-plasma material is technically a form of dark matter, because it doesn't glow under it's own power (except in infrared)). Anyway, eventually they figured out that it was mostly not planets or anything else that we understood.

So what started out as something that just sounded kind of mysterious but really had a fairly mundane reason for it's name ("dark matter" = "matter that is dark") ended up becoming mysterious as we ruled out various mundane explanations and were left with only a mystery.
Did you even watch the video? Because your explanation was boring (and had an edge of "Does that satisfy you? Good, now leave me alone.") while the video was exciting and fun (and had an edge of "I'm so glad you asked. This is going to be cool.").
More importantly, the explanation in the video was actually different, and the bit about electrons giving off light as they change orbits is only a small part of the light given off.
posted by delmoi at 10:50 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Flame" is the name of a newly-identified malware program which utilizes a previously unknown MD5 collision attack to successfully spoof Microsoft Terminal Services, and install itself as a trusted program using Windows Update, Microsoft has confirmed. The program appears to have targeted computers in the Middle East, and specifically Iran; analysts have alleged it is likely created by the same entity that designed Stuxnet. Flame has been live and actively spying since 2010, but went undetected until recently, due to sophisticated anti-detection measures. [more inside]
posted by mek at 11:13 AM - 42 comments
posted by 0rison at 11:48 PM on June 8, 2012


Alan Alda is in the same class with David Attenborough and Brian Cox, they being the three greatest science communicators to the 'lay public' on earth. If this is news to you, I encourage you to search for and find every science-related program Alan Alda has ever made. You'll be glad you did!
posted by Galadhwen at 10:57 AM on June 9, 2012


Yeah, I saw Alan Alda on some program years ago where he participated in a dream study, if memory serves correctly, and my respect for him went up a lot, and pretty much stayed there.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:20 AM on June 10, 2012


Alan Alda is in the same class with David Attenborough and Brian Cox, they being the three greatest science communicators to the 'lay public' on earth.

There is no one in the same class as David Attenborough. Seriously: In his mid-80s, he went to the South Pole to film Frozen Planet. He is a Titan among men, like Prometheus bringing us knowledge about the natural world. Alda and Cox are mere mortals (but great, nonetheless).
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:05 AM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


'Fire is a flame condition. This flame can be a gas tongue. This gas is a gas which burn'
-- MR Quillian's Semantic Net, 1967
posted by 0rison at 4:44 PM on June 10, 2012


bukvich: "A flame is gas that is hot enough that enough of the atoms are excited enough to emit enough electromagnetic radiation you can see it.

Any chemistry teacher should be capable of explaining this to an inquisitive 11 year old really fucking fast. A prize? A prize? Sheesh.
"

You do win a prize for being much faster than the video, but that's the only prize you win. What makes the gas that hot? You kinda skipped that. Why is it blue? Oh, you skipped that too. Well, what about the red part, and the orange part, and the yellow part? Oh, you skipped that to. Why's it called oxidation anyway? Oh, looks like you skipped that, too.

Sure, if you just skip explanations, explanations become "really fucking fast". I believe the prize is for offering a good explanation, not a really fucking fast explanation.

If "really fucking fast" were the meterstick we used for quality science explanations, you could finish an entire science education, from "what are atoms" to "what is the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox", in about a week.

Plus, great idea in using the word "electromagnetism" when explaining flame to an 11 year old. How much do you want to bet that using that word alone is going to cause the overall explanation to far, far exceed the seven minute length of this video?
posted by Bugbread at 6:15 PM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


« Older "There was a time when the woods near Duva ate gir...  |  Jimmy Fallon, Carly Rae Jepsen... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments