Flame Challenge 2017:  What Is Energy?Flame Challenge 2017: What Is Energy?Image courtesy of Stony Brook UniversitySTONY BROOK, NY, USA If this were “Jeopardy,” the clue would be “food, batteries, gasoline, wind, and lightning.”  The answer, in the form of a question of course, would be “What are forms of energy?”  Yet, the more fundamental—and important—question should be exactly “What is energy?”

In fact, it is apparently a question that is on the minds of thousands of children from around the world.  So much so that the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University has announced that “What is Energy?” is the question being issued to scientists across the globe for The Flame Challenge 2017. 

“As far as I know, nothing happens without energy,” said Mr. Alda, the actor, writer, and science advocate who serves as  a visiting professor at the Center and who created the challenge. “Night and day, we’re surrounded by it, moved by it—we live and breathe by it. But what is it?"

Related Article: Alan Alda Names Flame Challenge Champs Who Best Explain "What Is Sound?" to 11-Year Olds

An international contest now in its sixth year, the Flame Challenge is judged by 11-year-olds around the world, challenging scientists at every level—from graduate students to senior researchers—to answer and communicate familiar yet complex concepts in a way that is understandable to an 11-year-old. Entries can be submitted in written or visual format.

Please visit www.flamechallenge.org for information about entering the contest (for scientists) and to register your school or fifth/sixth grade class as contest judges (for teachers).

“I hope scientists from every discipline will have a go at answering this fundamental question about energy, said Alda.

“Eleven-year-olds all over the world are waiting to hear the explanation. The kids—and our sponsors, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society—all invite scientists to see if they can explain this complex aspect of nature clearly and vividly. Give it your best shot because, don’t forget, the kids themselves are the judges."

The Flame Challenge is sponsored in part by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The Flame Challenge offers a $1,000 cash prize for scientists in each category. The winning scientists will also receive a trip to New York City (includes airfare and accommodations for two nights), where they will meet Alan Alda and be honored at the World Science Festival.

Related Article: Alan Alda’s 2016 "Flame Challenge”: What Is Sound?

Rising to the top of 228 entries from countries as far as Egypt and Australia, the 2016 contest winners were: Nick Weckesser, a physicist from Michigan, and Dr. Bruce Goldstein, a distinguished teacher and associate professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Arizona.

"The Flame Challenge…doesn't just challenge scientists, but also traditional education in a way that has the power to inspire and excite kids about science. It makes science approachable,” said Weckesser, whose online persona is Nick Lucid. “Participating in the Flame Challenge was very enlightening and winning it was easily one of the most amazing experiences of my life."

Dr. Goldstein commented, “I feel that the Flame Challenge is important because science is a mystery to many people, so it is important to be able to communicate it in a way that they will find accessible, and in a way that enables them to appreciate the important role that science plays in their lives.”

The Flame Challenge began in 2011 when Mr. Alda proposed to scientists his childhood query: What is a flame? Since then, children have submitted thousands of questions, out of which the contest questions have been selected. In 2015, scientists wrestled with “What is sleep?” In 2016, they took on “What is sound?”

In 2016, about 26,000 students from 440 different schools participated as judges for The Flame Challenge. The United States was well-represented, with 38 schools registered, including a few from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Additionally, the contest attracted participation from across the globe, with participating schools including: Australia, China, India, New Zealand, and Thailand among others.