Sarah Lichtner

The 11-year-olds have spoken: when it comes to talking about science, clear communication is key. At the World Science Festival on June 2, the results of the 2013 Flame Challenge (discussed in one of my previous posts) were announced, with awards going to the best written and video answers to the question, “What is Time?” The winners all answered the question in simple terms that are accessible to fifth graders, reinforcing the need to explain science in clear, accurate terms that make sense to a specific audience.

Hundreds of scientists ranging in experience from retired PhDs to grad students entered the competition from a variety of backgrounds. The expertise areas of the finalists included biomedicine, psychiatry, electronics, astrophysics, chemistry, and biology, many of which are worlds away from the study of time.

The three finalists in the written category used similes, metaphors, and real-life examples to make the abstract concept of time something that the 11-year-olds could wrap their heads around. The winner, Nicholas Williams, a former national lab electronics technician, defined time in his response as “Forward Movement.” In discussing his win, he noted the importance of clear communication within and by the scientific community: “My hope is that the Flame Challenge will reinforce the concept that science must be understood, by all, no matter what the age.”

The video entries incorporated complexities that were not possible in the limited word count of the written entries. Using graphics, analogies, and even some humor, these scientists explained how time is the fourth dimension in the space-time continuum, and even explained the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The winner, Steven Maguire, a PhD candidate chemist with a passion for science communication, relied on humor and clear explanations to appeal to the fifth-grade audience. In his video, he used the length, width, and height of a classroom to define the three dimensions students can opt to move in, while defining time as the fourth dimension. He noted that no two objects can occupy the same point at the same time, joking that even the class clown can’t successfully sit in the same desk as another student.

The Flame Challenge illustrates the power of clear, concise communication that appeals to a specific audience to really drive a message home, no matter how complex the subject matter might be. It’s our philosophy at Nexight, and it’s the way that science and technology information will continue to influence the innovators of today and tomorrow.