Alan Alda Searches for Best 'What is Time?' Answer for a Sixth Grader

First Posted: Dec 11, 2012 06:24 PM EST

Professor Alan Alda, which we all may know him a bit better as Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce on the TV show "MASH", is posing a question for scientists to explain in sixth-grader terms, "What is time?"

Alan Alda, a visiting professor at New York's Stony Brook University School of journalism and a founder of the school's Center for Communicating Science, is sponsoring a competition to answer the interesting question. This is the second year that he is posing a question to scientists; last year was "what is a flame?"

The answers will be judged by over 5,000 sixth-graders who are 11 years old. The competition is part of a wider effort to improve communication skills among scientists.

"Last year's contest question came from a real 11-year-old: me" said Alda through a statement released recently by SBU.

"But when I asked what a flame was at the age of 11, I was probably younger in some ways than most 11-year-olds are now. They're asking a very deep question this year. It's going to be fun to see how scientists around the world answer that one in everyday language."

"There's hardly an issue we deal with today that isn't affected by science," Alda said. "I've even heard from a number of people in Congress that they often don't understand what scientists are talking about when they go to Washington to testify, and these are the people who make the decisions about funding and policy."

He said many scientists have told him they have to get better at communicating.

"We see misinformation about scientific facts on a daily basis," Alda said. "Sometimes you know so much about something you assume everybody else is as familiar as you are and you tend to speak in shorthand. Even other scientists may not understand what you are talking about if they are not an expert in your field."

Last year's winner for answering the "What is a flame?" question was Ben Ames, a 31-year-old Kansas City native studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Innsbruck. Check out the animated video he created below to cleverly answer the question:

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