What is a Flame?

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The first ever Flame Challenge question, “what is a flame” in 2012 was inspired by a question Alan Alda posed to to a scientist when he was 11.

“When I asked what a flame was at the age of 11,” Alan said, “I was probably younger in some ways than most 11-year-olds are now.” He said

More than 800 scientists submitted entries from 30 different countries, and over 6,000 students voted on one winner.

Click here to see the 2012 Flame Challenge in the media.

The Winner

small-Ben-smiling-croppedThe first winner, Ben Ames is an American working on his PhD in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, exploring how atoms interact with light on the tiny, tiny, quantum level.

He grew up in Kansas City, Mo., the youngest of eight children, in a home filled with music. As a child, he played piano and guitar, performed in high school plays, studied ballet, and danced each year in a local production of The Nutcracker. (Ben’s mother is a ballerina and ballet teacher.)

Ben’s earliest ambition, however, was to be an inventor, like Thomas Edison, and he loved to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy on television. He became intimidated by science in grade school, but in college he rediscovered his passion for asking questions about the natural world. Ben received a bachelor’s degree in applied physics from the University of Utah, and studied in Finland before moving to the University of Innsbruck. Ben’s wife, Missy, is an artist and former art teacher. Their daughter, Adelaide, enjoys music as well, .

Ben writes: “I also have a passion for music, film, and the performing arts. So when I learned about this wonderful contest, I had finally found a project where I could put all of my interests to use. I locked myself in my basement for a solid week, writing, narrating, animating, and composing every element of the film.” Ben would like to thank his wife and daughter for their love and support.

The Finalists

Entry #317:
Written entry by Richard Frauenglass, Huntington, NY.

What is a flame? A flame is an object, a “thing,” something you can see, something you can touch (but don’t do that because it is hot). It is not like other objects, such as a rock, because it “happens” and then goes away. It “happens” when something (a “combustible”) is heated to a high enough temperature and then starts to burn. This might be wood, or paper, or gas, or oil, or dry leaves, just to name a few. It takes different amounts of heat to get them to burn, but they all do. The big name for things burning is “combustion.” You get the heat by burning something else or — if you have a magnifying glass and focus sunlight on a single spot — you will be able to burn paper and some other things.

There are other ways to make a flame by mixing chemicals, but heating is easiest to understand. When something burns, it changes into ash and/or a gas (“residue”), and light. This light is what is called “a flame.” So a flame is what you see when something burns.

Richard Frauenglass grew up in Brooklyn in a house around the corner from Ebbets Field, attended Erasmus Hall High School and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from The Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. After five years at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. in Bethpage, N.Y., where he worked on the electronic systems integration of the Lunar Module, Dick spent the remainder of his career at Airborne Instrument Laboratories (AIL), in Deer Park, N.Y. There he designed and implemented digital system architectures for the processing of data associated with electronic warfare systems. He also was responsible for internal research programs, developing technologically advanced integrated circuit devices, and writing and evaluating proposals requiring sophisticated processing techniques. Dick holds two patents. After an early retirement, he was an Adjunct Faculty member at a small private college and then served as a consultant at InterDigital Corp. in Melville, N.Y., on the definition of the architecture for telecommunications algorithm implementation and processing. After a successful battle with lung cancer, he is currently a member of the Adjunct Faculty at Nassau Community College.

Entry #592:
Written entry by Nathan Anderson, Seattle, Wash.

To have a flame, you need three very important things: You need fuel (the stuff that burns), air (the stuff you breathe and more precisely the oxygen in the air), and heat to start the flame (often times another flame, matches, lighters, or if you are really good two sticks!). The easiest way to think about flames is to imagine a candle being lit by a match. The most important thing is to realize that flames are all about gasses! That’s why flames flicker, dance, and seem to float above the thing they are burning, because they actually are! When you light a candle with a match, the flame from the match melts the wax around the wick, turning it into a liquid. That liquid is then sucked up the wick (like watching water climb up a dry paper towel!) and the flame from the match boils the liquid in the wick and turns it into a gas! The newly created gas (that used to be a solid candle) then floats away from the wick like steam rising from a boiling pot and mixes into the air. When the wax (that is now a gas), the oxygen in the air, and the heat from match are all together, then a new flame starts! The cool thing about a flame is that the real flame is very, very small! Only a small part of the flame you see is actually on fire, and that’s because fire is very, very picky. Think of it as Goldilocks, too much fuel and it won’t burn, too much air and it can’t burn — it has to be just right and that only happens right at the outer rim of the flame. The rest of the flame, inside of that rim, is just full of hot gas! As the flame burns, it has to get new fuel, so the solid wax continues to melt and get pulled up the wick. Once the wax boils off the wick and pushes out towards the fire, it gets hotter and hotter as it goes until it too bursts into fire. As the wax gets hotter it starts to glow, just like metal does when it gets too hot. The hotter the wax gas gets, it changes colors, that’s why you see yellows, and oranges, and reds in the flame. If you look really close at a flame you’ll even see blues and whites! Sometimes the wax moves so fast as it heads to little fire that it can’t get burnt all the way so it escapes as shoots off into the air. That’s what soot and smoke are, really fast moving bits of wax! Think of them as burnt marshmallows. The outside is all black, but they are still marshmallows on the inside. Smoke is still wax, just a little overdone.

Nathan Anderson, 28, received a bachelor’s degree from Michigan Technological University and a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in mechanical engineering. He works in Seattle as a fuel systems analysis and certification engineer for The Boeing Co. Nathan writes: “I heard Alan Alda describe the Flame Challenge on the Science Friday show on NPR and thought it sounded like a unique challenge in an area that I have always been interested in. I enjoy discussing scientific topics with others so I decided to enter. The best way to know if you actually understand a subject is to see if you can actually teach someone else about it.

Entry #753:
Graphic entry by Larry Li and Villian Lo, Cambridge, UK

Larry Li grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and studied engineering at the University of British Columbia. He recently obtained a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he is now a postdoctoral researcher working on flow instabilities and combustion.

Villian Lo began her education in Australia and then moved to the United Kingdom to study architecture at the University of Nottingham. She went on to obtain master’s degrees from the University of Cambridge and the Welsh School of Architecture, before returning to Cambridge last year to start a PhD in lighting quality and perception.

Entry #765:
Video entry by Rachel D’Erminio and Ted Londner, Cambridge, Mass.

Ted Londner is an aerospace engineer living and working in the Boston area. He holds a B.S. and an M.S. in aerospace engineering. Ted was always interested in science growing up, and ever since starting his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, he has had a growing interest in the communication aspect of science and engineering.

Rachel D’Erminio is a designer, illustrator and media consultant. She holds a B.S. in television production and an M.A. in broadcast design and motion graphics. Rachel is interested in creating fun, engaging pieces that combine information and storytelling. You can find more of her work at www.Raetastic.com

Entry #800:
Video entry by Simon Schreier, Central, S.C.

Simon Schreier was born and raised in New York City, where he could frequently be found wandering the halls of the American Museum of Natural History. His scientific career began in seventh grade at the Hudson River Project, where he led tours and studied oyster beds. He attended Hunter College High School and received a B.S. in biology from Brandeis University in 2010. Simon is currently pursuing a master’s degree in plant and environmental science at Clemson University under the tutelage of Dr. Steve Jeffers. He has participated in myriad research experiences including time spent at Mount Sinai Medical Center, University of Colorado at Boulder, and The California Academy of Sciences. When he’s not in the lab, Simon can be found hiking in the Appalachian Mountains or whipping up a delicious meal in his kitchen. Simon would like to thank his teachers, friends, and parents for their unwavering support.

To see all the “What is a Flame?” honorable mention entries, click here.

Watch Alan Alda discuss the question “what is a flame” with 11-year-olds.