Alan Alda became famous for his film and television roles, including Hawkeye Pierce in the long-running TV series M*A*S*H*. In recent years, however, the 78-year-old actor-writer-director has taken on a new role--as a high-profile champion of science literacy.
Alda professes a lifelong love of science and clearly holds scientists in high esteem--Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is a particular favorite. But when it comes to explaining scientific concepts, Alda believes scientists and science teachers often fall short.
It's a problem he first encountered all the way back in grade school.
"When I was 11 years old, I asked a teacher what's going on in a flame," he said in a recent interview with David Freeman, senior science editor at The Huffington Post. "It's fascinating. You can put your finger through it but it's hot, it gives off light. What's happening in the flame? And the teacher said, 'It's oxidation.' That was it. I didn't know what that meant. It was just another word."
That frustrating experience, Alda said in the interview, was the inspiration for The Flame Challenge, an annual competition in which scientists and scientists-in-training take a shot at explaining a scientific concept or phenomenon with the winners judged by--you guessed it--11-year-olds.
Previous questions for the competition have included "What is color"" and "What is time?" The question this year is "What is sleep?"
To learn more about The Flame Challenge--and to hear Alda describe the particulars of his love for science, listen to the podcast above.