The flame challenge: How well can a scientist answer a child's question?

March 2, 2012, Stony Brook University

Famed actor Alan Alda, founding member of the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science and a Visiting Professor in the School of Journalism, is challenging scientists to answer an 11-year-old’s “not-so-simple” question, “What is a flame?” The challenge, to explain a flame in a clear, engaging, meaningful way so an 11-year-old can understand, is presented in a guest editorial, “The Flame Challenge,” in the March 2 issue of the journal Science.

Alda asked that very question as an 11-year-old 65 years ago and the he received left him in the dark. He hopes that scientists will be better equipped to communicate answers and instill a love of science. “The natural curiosity of a child can be both the beginning of the next generation of science, and a stimulating challenge for this generation’s scientists to communicate with clarity and imagination,” Alda said. This editorial challenge kicks off a month-long contest that will be judged by a panel of 11-year-olds for scientific accuracy.

The Flame Challenge contest is open for entries between March 2 and April 2, with winners to be announced in June. Entries can be in writing, video or graphics, playful or serious, as long as they are accurate and connect with the young judges.  For more information and entry forms, or if your school would like to participate in the judging, please visit .

The Flame Challenge is sponsored by the Center for Communicating Science, which is dedicated to helping current and future scientists learn to communicate clearly and vividly with the public. “We’re also asking children to email us with other questions they would like scientists to answer,” said Elizabeth Bass, Director of the Center for Communicating Science.  “We’ll select one for our next Flame Challenge. This is a fun way to help both and kids learn new things about science.”

Explore further: Candle flames contain millions of tiny diamonds

More information: Questions can be emailed to .

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1 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2012
You mean heat causes solids to form gases and the gases combine with oxygen causing what we see as fire, releasing heat and light and the heat causes more gases to be released and combine with oxygen causing more fire and the whole thing to keep going until there is no more gas released to burn and the flame goes out? Yeah, tough to explain.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2012
what is a flame? Put your hand in it for a second...
3 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2012
Damn, I just tried to write out an essay - but I gave up.

Using only simple words I couldn't fit it below 1000 words (which is already too long for the attention span of an average 11 year old)
And at some point I had to get into atoms, molecules, electrons and orbitals. That's way too abstract - but anything less isn't correct.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2012
A flame is the visible portion of combustion - otherwise known as fire. Flames typically develop when a burnable gas mixes with air and therefore mixing the burnable gas with a chemical known as oxygen that is a component of air. When mixed with oxygen in this way, some burnable materials will spontaneously combine with the oxygen at room temperature, or more commonly at higher temperatures, to produce a new chemical known as an oxide, and in the process of forming that new chemical release energy that causes the mixture to release energy, and causing the gas to become hot and visibly glow.

If enough heat is released by the flame it can cause other materials to change their composition or physical state.

In the case of a candle, the heat can cause the candle wax to melt and turn to gas providing more material to replenish the fuel burned in the flame and thereby keeping the flame persistent.

With other materials like wood, the heat of the existing flame may cause the cont.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2012
components of the wood to break down and turn to a gas that in turn mixes with air and burns maintaining the flame.

If there is lots of fuel (wood, wax) available then a small flame may produce enough wood derived gas or wax derived gas for the flame to grow larger perhaps growing from a small spark to a large forest fire.

If there is not enough heat from the flame or if there is not sufficient fuel available the flame may grow smaller and eventually reach a point where it can not produce enough wood derived gas or wax derived gas to maintain itself, and the flame will grow smaller and smaller until it simply stops.

With proper design things like candles can be made such that the flame neither grows larger or smaller, and remains the same size until the fuel (wax) runs out.

The active component of air that causes burning is known as oxygen, but this is not the only chemical that can cause other materials to burn and produce a flame.

Under controlled conditions many other cont.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2012
materials can take the place of oxygen. However these materials are not common and almost never found free in nature. So flames and fire are commonly viewed as occurring only in open air as a result of the presence of the chemical known as oxygen.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2012
First pass.
not rated yet Mar 02, 2012
Bucky Fuller answered this to a child long ago:


Fire is the Sun unwinding from the trees log. The Earth revolves and the trees revolve as the radiation from the Suns flame reaches the revolving planet Earth. By photosynthesis the green buds and leaves of the tree convert that Sun radiation into hydrocarbon molecules, which form into the bio-cells of the green, outer, cambium layer of the tree. The tree is a tetrahedron that makes a cone as it revolves. The trees three tetrahedral roots spread out into the ground to anchor the tree and get water. Each year the new, outer-layer, green-tree cone revolves 365 turns, and every year the tree grows its new tender-green, bio-cell cone layer just under the bark and over the accumulating cones of previous years. Each ring of the many rings of the saw-cut log is one years Sun-energy impoundment. So the fire is the many-years-of-Sun-flame-winding now ..."
1 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2012
Perhaps a child is curious as to why a 'flame' or 'plume' is invisible to the eye (the exit of exhaust from rockets in space.)

The absent of sound from any source in space is easier to explain.

5 / 5 (1) Mar 03, 2012
Definitely not an easy task, since many flames are invisible, eg. burning hydrogen flame.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 04, 2012
Q: "The flame challenge: How well can a scientist answer a child's question?"

A: No better on average than answering any other uneducated fool's question. If a child really wants answers, the child needs to study.
not rated yet Mar 04, 2012
Merriam Webster

Flame Definition: the glowing gaseous part of a fire

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