How Can You Explain “Color” to an 11-Year-Old?

Alan Alda’s challenge to scientists: Let kids be the judges.

explaining color to 11-year-olds.

We have a lot to learn by teaching 11-year-olds.

Photo-illustration by Slate. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Thinkstock

About six months ago, my 8-year-old asked whether fire was a solid, a liquid, or a gas. I am sad to confess that my answer at the time was: “A gas. … No, a solid. … No. A gas. … It depends. … Let’s check Google. Look! A squirrel!” And those were the coherent parts. When actor Alan Alda was 11, he too asked a teacher what a flame was. And her one-word explanation—“oxidation”—wasn’t much more satisfying than mine. So in 2011, Alda—who is a longtime science enthusiast, PBS science sherpa, and founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York—developed the Flame Challenge, a competition in which scientists around the country are tasked with explaining a complicated scientific idea to the satisfaction of thousands of exacting 11-year-old judges.

In 2012 the winning entry to the “What is a flame?” question was this fantastic video (exponentially better than my answer). Last year the question was “What is time?” (Here you go.) This year’s question—“What is color?” —was chosen from hundreds submitted by kids. Now, scientists from around the country have until March 1 to submit their responses in either the written category or a video/graphic format. Last year 20,000 students around the world weighed in on the judging.

I asked Alda whether the impetus for the Flame Challenge was teaching kids to understand science or getting scientists to explain science clearly. “I thought we were doing this mainly to teach scientists how hard and interesting it is to say something complex so an 11-year-old could understand it—and, by the way, so that I could understand it,” Alda says, “but then I saw that we got kids more excited about science than they ever were before. And it’s something science teachers can grab on to, to make science more interesting for the kids.” The real point of the Flame Challenge and the Center for Communicating Science, however, is to teach scientists to communicate their ideas clearly to laypeople, policymakers, and government officials.

I asked him whether, three years into the challenge, he was more surprised by the sophistication of the 11-year-old student judges or the heroic communication efforts of the scientists. “I was surprised by Ben Ames’ video,” the winning flame explanation, he replies, “because it was so elaborate and so informative and fun.” But he says that more and more he is surprised by the complex questions the kids are coming up with for the experts. As last year’s question—“What is time?”—shows, the kids are so abstract and philosophical. But it also turns out that sometimes even seemingly simple questions are still the subject of scientific debate. “With all these questions, we vet the answers with experts,” Alda explains. “But it has happened that even the experts don’t agree on the answers. So that tells me that science is still in progress.”

I asked whether science has always been too technical and arcane to explain to an 11-year-old—Galileo wouldn’t have been able to explain science to a kid either, right? Or has science become more inaccessible over time? “One problem is acute specialization,” he replies, “so that words come into use within a specialty and come to mean different things.” As an example he offers this: “There was a meeting attended by neuroscientists and nanoscientists about a year ago, hoping to form a collaboration, and they wasted hours arguing over the meaning of the word probe.”

Still, Alda argues, when it’s important, scientists can speak to laypeople. “Interestingly,” he notes, “when Marie Curie wrote her paper on radioactivity, any layperson could follow it. And it was on an issue that was not at all simple, but it was written in a personal way, and you could follow it as though it was a human activity, which it was.” It’s not just that scientists sometimes carry jargon into their conversations with the public or policymakers, he says, it’s that “sometimes fancy words are used in an effort to be precise, but in fact precision can actually be lost through confusion.”

Alda was about to go speak at the annual conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I asked what he would be saying to all the scientists gathered there. He says it’s not about shortcuts or tricks for talking to regular people. “The thing is, scientists really want to do better at this. I see it in graduate students and senior scientists who are stars in their field. They understand what’s at stake,” he says. “When I talk about it, and when we do workshops, it’s not to impart a few tips. That’s the way communication is handled by a lot of books and programs. But I actually think we have to habituate ourselves to a different way of expressing ourselves. And it’s not about expressing ourselves so much as it is about really making contact with the people we are talking to.” He adds: “We give a lot of thought to how to say things, when in fact, how it’s being received is much more crucial. At the center, we start with getting scientists focused on the person they are communicating with; to be aware of what’s happening in their brain. I think getting the audience to want to know more might be more valuable to them than getting them to understand a fact or two. For that to happen, you have to have a connection with them. You have to know how to reach them where they are.”

I suggest to him that maybe he should be using these same techniques to train experts to discuss civics or politics or the Constitution. “We almost never do a workshop,” Alda laughs, “where we don’t get someone getting up and saying, ‘Why don’t you do this for economics and other disciplines?’ … But I can’t change the whole world.”

I ask what it is about the age of 11 that creates the most accurate judges of clear scientific explanation. “That’s the age I was when I asked that question, ‘What’s a flame?’ ” he replies, “and I think by accident we stumbled on an age that seems just right, and maybe that’s why I asked that question at that age. Because at 11 there is not only curiosity, but an increased level of critical thinking,” he pauses, “and also a tremendous sense of dignity. We have videos of them discussing the entries and voting on them. And I hear in these conversations at least the level of maturity of some boards that I’ve been on.” I muse that 11-year-olds also really don’t tolerate being talked down to. “Oh yeah,” he says. “The memorable line was the one kid who said, ‘It’s OK to be funny. But it’s not OK to be silly. We’re 11; we’re not 7.’ ” He laughs. “They want information. I have seen them turn down a lot of entries because the kids think there wasn’t enough information.”  

I ask whether he has to translate himself when he talks to a roomful of scientists. He replies: “I love science. But I am very aware that I am not a scientist. So I make it clear that my contribution is to ask questions rather than translate. One of the things I am working on in the center is to help scientists communicate in their own voice and not have to be translated at all. I know something about communicating; I spent my life communicating. So this is what we do.”

This conversation brings me inevitably to the creationism-vs.-evolution debate earlier this month between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. He is careful to say that he didn’t watch it: “I have only seen clips of the debate,” he cautions, “so I can’t really say anything intelligent about it.” He asks what they said about the fossils and then says, “I once had a conversation with a teenager who had been trained in creationism and I asked him about the fossils. He said, ‘God put them there to test our faith.’ That’s a really wonderful circular argument.” Then he asks whether I think it’s a mistake to ever engage in debates about science and creation, and asks how my sons responded to watching the Nye/Ham debate and what the audience seemed to think of the arguments. Suddenly I realize that he is interviewing me, which is precisely what he is trying to teach scientists—to ask questions, to understand your audience, and to focus on the person you’re talking to. Lucky scientists, I think. You’re in excellent hands.