What is Time?

clockFor the 2013 Flame Challenge we asked kids to suggest questions. Many around the country asked: “What is time?” Some used exactly those words and others asked things like: How do you make a time machine? Why can’t you go back in time? Is time an arrow? Is it a wave? How can you tell what time it is without looking at a clock? Can we transcend space and time? How many dimensions are there? How do we age? How did time begin?

SimonSyndeySydney Allison, an 11-year old sixth grader from Reno, Nev. and Simon O’Rourke, a 10-year-old fourth-grader from Mamaroneck, N.Y., were selected to represent these questioners.

Simon explained his idea of time this way:
“The people who thought of time did it just to explain movements, like a year is just the movement of the earth around the sun, and a day is just the movement of the earth. And that’s what I think time might be. That’s the best I can explain it.”

We received hundreds of entries from 38 states and 15 different countries, including Brazil, Kenya and Spain. Over 20,000 students participated in the judging process.

click here to read about the 2013 Flame Challenge in the media.


The Winners

Written Category Winner
Nicholas Williams is retired from a 33-year long career at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) in California. He got his start in science and engineering in 1963 aboard the naval vessel, the USS Point Defiance. Since retirement, Nick has focused on his passion for science outreach and education, continuing to work with LLNL on their “Fun With Science” program for graders. Nick’s motto is, “science is explainable magic.” He has even traveled to remote Alaskan villages to teach students how fun science can be.

“Presenting a science program, or science topic, to students in very early school years is definitely a challenge. I have witnessed very, very intelligent scientists try, and fail…My hope is that the Flame Challenge will reinforce the concept that science must be understood, by all, no matter what the age. Teach at the grade level, not below, not above. Teach so it makes sense. Teach so it can be understood. Teach so it can be remembered.”

What is time?
Have you ever heard your parents say to you that it’s time to go to bed or time to get up, time to go to school, time to clean your room, time to do this, time to do that, and on and on. Our world runs on a time schedule, and the schedule is so tight that there are schedules for everything we do throughout the day and clocks that tell you what time it is so we can do those things at the correct time. Time is so obvious in our lives that no one questions it. It’s just there, we have to live with it, and so we accept it. All activity on earth is based on time, and this time is what happened a second ago, a minute ago, an hour ago, days ago, and years ago. Well, now we have an important question. What is it?
Time has a lot of definitions; like time is history or time is age. But, have we ever considered a good definition? I have. Here’s my definition. And no, I did not get this from some book or online. It’s just something that makes sense to me. I think of time as Forward Movement. Think about it! Everything moves forward, from the universe to every second of your life. And because everything moves forward, man developed a way to keep track of this Forward Movement and called it time. Man also invented clocks to keep a precise log of this Forward Movement in years, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and even parts of seconds. I’ll always continue to think of time as Forward Motion. I’ll also think of it as a Forward Motion that will never change, will never stop, and can never be reversed.

Visual Category Winner
Steven Maguire is a PhD candidate studying inorganic catalysis at the University of Ottawa. Steve’s current area of research involves alternative fuels, but his real passion lies in teaching and science communication. Steve has even started his own web series called Science Isn’t Scary. He was inspired by science at an early age, crediting the character of Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and his high school chemistry teacher. Steve describes his passion for science as, “more than just a job, it’s a way of looking at the world and explaining how things work. What I really like about it is the detective work that goes into building a coherent picture from a variety of different pieces of evidence, and the way they fit together and complement each other.”

“I’ve been passionate about science since I started watching Star Trek at age 11, but I didn’t settle on chemistry as my field until Grade 11. While pursuing my Bachelor’s, I discovered another passion for acting, and during my grad school career I developed a talent for teaching. The Flame Challenge was a rare opportunity to combine all three of these things into what I hope will be my future career path.”

To see the all the “What is color?” finalists, click here.

Watch the Worldwide Assembly, where Alan Alda discusses the finalists with students.