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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