The Flame Challenge

March 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm 2 comments

Last week I was reading Science and I came across a touching editorial by Alan Alda – the actor.

His concern is a basic one that nearly all of us share: how do we connect in a fundamentally human way to non-scientists, especially children, about science?

If a child asks you: What is a candle flame? You can’t tell her “oxidation” or “self-sustaining combustion” because those words mean nothing to her, they drain the question-answer experience of warmth, and ultimately discourage further such questions.

So, how would you answer the child in a way that avoids those pitfalls?

This is the question posed by Alda, and in fact the starting point of a serious exercise to connect scientists with schoolchildren in a way that promotes the beauty of Nature and an interest in science. There is an outreach program and a contest and an opportunity to make suggestions and provide feedback. Go to to get involved.

Any ideas?


Entry filed under: Education, Outreach.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Craig McNeile  |  March 22, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I am not sure I can read the paper in Science. It may be possibly interesting that Michael Faraday used the science of a candle
    to explain many things about chemistry and physics.

    He wrote a book called: The Chemical History of a Candle.

    The book is available online at

    This was an early example of “outreach”.

  • 2. Michael Schmitt  |  March 22, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Hi Craig,

    good that you mention Faraday – I had forgotten about that. I’ll take a look at the online copy of the books – thanks! – just to get a glimpse of his genius. Of course, he was not writing for an audience of children but that does not matter. He was the consummate experimental scientist and, if I remember correctly, a wonderful scientific writer.

    thanks again,


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