What Is a Flame?: The First Prize-Winner at Alan Alda’s Science Video Competition

If an eleven year old child asked you to explain what a flame was, what would you say? When Alan Alda was 11 and posed the ques­tion, his teacher replied, “Oxy­da­tion.”

Unsat­is­fied and still curi­ous, Alda went on to help cre­ate the Cen­ter for Com­mu­ni­cat­ing Sci­ence at Stony Brook Uni­ver­si­ty. This year the Cen­ter issued the Flame Chal­lenge, invit­ing all com­ers to take a stab at explain­ing what a flame is. The only require­ment: Make your expla­na­tion clear, and inter­est­ing, to an 11-year-old.

Sci­en­tists from all over the world sent in entries – some were just one sen­tence (one actu­al­ly stat­ed, “A flame is oxi­da­tion.” Come on!). Anoth­er was a 37-page writ­ten expla­na­tion. After judg­ing the entries (all of which were pre-screened by sci­en­tists for accu­ra­cy), class­rooms of 11-year-olds declared a win­ner: an ani­mat­ed video by Ben Ames, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in quan­tum optics.

In the sev­en-and-a-half minute video, the con­ge­nial voice of a sci­en­tist (Ames) explains a flame to a beard­ed man chained in hell.

“See that fire over there?” Ames asks. “Have you ever real­ly won­dered what the flames are from that fire? I mean look at all those col­ors!”

He goes on charm­ing­ly to describe the process, with­out avoid­ing big words that kids actu­al­ly seem to love: when atoms (car­bon and hydro­gen) react to heat and change form, that’s pyrol­y­sis. That chem­i­cal reac­tion radi­ates light: chemi­lu­mi­nes­cence. Then the changed car­bon and hydro­gen inter­act with oxy­gen and that’s—you guessed it—oxi­da­tion.

But 11-year-olds love music too, right? Ames wraps it up with a song:

The fuel los­es mass, it turns to gas

Before the next change through, some atoms shine blue

When the process is com­plete, it gives off heat

Extra car­bon will glow—red, orange, yel­low.

Kate Rix is an Oak­land-based edu­ca­tion writer.

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