What Is Color?

Time’s Up!

By the March 1 deadline, hundreds of scientists submitted answers for this year’s Flame Challenge question: What is Color? Thanks to all who grappled with this tough question. We received entries from around the globe, including England, Liberia, Greece and Brazil.

Now it’s up to our 11-year-old judges. Nearly 27,000 students will judge the entries, including kids from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America and 39 states in the U.S. So stay tuned – the finalists will be revealed in late April.

If you are a teacher looking to submit student judging results (you will need a password) click here.

flame logo with sponsors

We challenged scientists to take part in the 2014 Flame Challenge and answer a vibrant question asked by 11-year-olds from around the country:

What is Color?

The Flame Challenge is an international contest started by Alan Alda that asks scientists to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old.

“The Flame Challenge has grown from scientists trying to answer the question of one 11-year old (me) from many decades ago, to tackling questions on the minds of thousands of current 11-year olds from around the world,” said Alda. “I’m in awe of the scientists who can bring clarity to these questions and I’m in awe of the kids who keep the scientists on their toes.”

what is color2What is Color? It’s a fundamental question that spans the sciences. It can be answered from the perspective of physics, chemistry, psychology, even from a geological or oceanographic perspective. To choose this year’s challenge, The Alda Center collected more than 800 questions from children from all over the world. Many different questions were asked about color, including “Is my blue their blue?” “Does everyone see color the same?” and, even one of the most classic childhood questions, “Why is the sky blue?”

The Flame Challenge is generously sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

How It Works

After screening for scientific accuracy, the entries are judged by thousands of 11-year-olds in schools around the world. Last year, there were nearly 20,000 students judges! There are two winners – one Written and one Visual (video or graphic entry). The winning scientists will be brought to New York to be honored in June at the World Science Festival.

The Flame Challenge began two years ago with Alan Alda’s childhood query: What is a flame?

“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 the kids asked a very deep question last year (What is Time?), and that it was fun to see how scientists around the world answered “that one” in everyday language.

Past Winners

The previous Flame Challenge winners have been busy communicating science to audiences of all ages, from Canada to Germany to California. Ben Ames, a physics doctoral student at the University of Innsbruck and the inaugural winner in 2012, made a cartoon video with an original song to explain a flame to kids. Ben is finishing up his PhD this summer and is busy working on producing a kids’ science show. Nick Williams won last year in the written category for his answer to the question “What is time?” Nick, a retired engineer, runs an outreach program, Fun with Science, for California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Nick just got back from an adventure in Northern Alaska where he got students in a remote village excited about science. Steve Maguire, last year’s winner in the visual category, continues explaining complex science to kids in his web series, Science Isn’t Scary.

“The Flame Challenge is the perfect opportunity to step outside the ivory tower and connect with a different audience,” Steve said. “It doesn’t matter if the question is outside your field — I’m a chemist, and I had to explain a topic in physics. Whatever you do, don’t talk down to them. Kids are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for. They will also give the most bluntly honest criticism you’ll ever receive.”

Scenes From Previous Challenges

To give you a sense of the fun and excitement of the Flame Challenge, here is a video snapshot of a previous contest.


Many thanks to our Flame Challenge sponsors, the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), two nonprofit organizations working to improve communication of science.