Alan Alda Announces Winner Of 'Flame Challenge'

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“What is color?”

In December 2013 as part of his annual Flame Challenge, Alan Alda, the actor-turned-science-advocate, asked scientists to come up with an answer to that question in a way that an 11-year-old could understand.

According to, on Sunday, June 1, Alda announced the winners of the challenge at the World Science Festival, at an event which took place at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The announcement took place as part of an event that explored what color is and isn’t made of, how the brain perceives it, and how some individuals can even “see” it in music and smells.

The winner of the video category went to Dianna Cowern, an outreach coordinator in the physics department at the University of California, San Diego. In her clip, which ran less than four minutes, Cowern wears costumes and interacts with animations, taking viewers on a journey from color as a wave-length of light to a perception caused by a signal in the brain.

Alda praised Cowern for being respectful of her audience’s knowledge while still being playful. “It was humorous and joyous, but it didn't disrespect the kids, and I love that.”

The winner of the written category went to Melanie Golob, a science communicator who works for a company called Doctor Evidence.

“Color itself isn't a thing we can touch, like a pencil or book; color is how our eyes interpret reflection of light off of certain objects,” read part of Golob's entry. “That's why we don't see colors in the dark; there's no light to reflect.”

More than 27,000 schoolchildren from 19 different countries helped pick the winners from nearly 400 entries.

Alda, who is better known for roles on M*A*S*H and The West Wing, started his inaugural Flame challenge in 2011, drawing on his experience as an 11-year-old student asking his science teacher about fire. The science teacher said “It is oxidation,” leaving Alda unsatisfied.

“I didn't know any more about than I did before,” Alda said, recounting the experience at the event on Sunday. “It's just like calling it by another name. It's [as if] I said, ‘What's a flame?’ and she said, ‘Oh, that's Fred.’”

Alda is seeking questions for his next challenge, which you can submit here.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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