TODAY   |  December 11, 2012

Alan Alda talks about his new science contest

The Emmy-winning actor, writer and director is also a science buff, and his interest inspired him to create the Center for Communicating Science and “The Flame Challenge,” which invites kids to ask tough science questions that could use simple explanations.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we all know and love alan alda as an emmy-winning actor, writer, and director. what you may not know is that he is a huge, huge science buff.

>> a question he asked when he was just 11 years old, what is a --

>> he wasn't talking about girls. inspired to create a science contest called the flame challenge, alan is here along with 10-year-old simon o'rourke, one of the two winners that came up with the winning question. what is time?

>> what a good question.

>> what a great question.

>> hi.

>> why did you ask that question?

>> i was waiting on-line to see the show when i got the little ticket where you right the question, and then i looked at a clock, and i wondered what is time?

>> it's so great.

>> did you pick the winners?

>> actually, the -- there were hundreds of kids who suggested questions for this year's flame challenge. last year was what is a flame, and we didn't know what to ask scientists this year to explain to 11-year-olds, so we asked 11-year-olds and simon was the first one that came in, but this question was also answered by a number of other kids. one by sydney allison in reno, all the way on the other side of the country, and the same question. kids are interested in this.

>> yeah, sure.

>> it's a complicated question.

>> when you asked your question, what is a flame, when you heard the answer, you were dissatisfied as a young kid, weren't snu.

>> that's right. i asked a teacher what a flame is. did that ever make you wonder? i asked my teacher, and she said a flame is oxidation, and that was it. i had never heard that word before. it's like calling it another name like a flame is fred. good. now i'll think about something else.

>> nothing to do with combustion?

>> i didn't -- didn't hear anything else. many years later i said to scientists, explain what a flame is so an 11-year-old can understand it, and this year -- by the way, you know, we had scientists from all over the world submitting entries last year, and we had over 6,000 kids who were judging the scientists' entries, and simon not only came up with the question, but he will be one of the judges.

>> way to go, simon . do you think you're going to make your career in the world of science?

>> i'm not sure.

>> what do you think you might be? any idea yet? somebody said you might be a chef?

>> yeah.

>> or clarinettist.

>> i have been an experiment on you while we've been talking. when i snap my fingers, i have been timing this.

>> okay.

>> i want to you figure out -- because time is so hard --

>> 16 seconds.

>> how long has -- how much time has passed since we started, and from until now.

>> three minutes and 20 seconds.

>> what do you think?

>> he looked at it.

>> he looked at it. okay. what do they think at home? how much time has passed? two minutes and 47 seconds.

>> that's it? too short.

>> time doesn't -- is not such a discreet thing. we think about it in different ways.

>> i think we can all agree that what time is precious.

>> yes.

>> time is precious.

>> how precious is it now, huh?

>> smart boy. alan, love you. great story.