Young Minds, Alan Alda, and “The Flame Challenge”

My first published piece of writing about science and society will always be my Editor’s Query contribution to The Washington Post.  I wrote about the young man I met when I was a drama-camp counselor and how he opened my eyes to the desperate puzzlement of quantum mechanics, perhaps planting the first seeds that led to my current path.  He has definitely inspired my fascination with how the general public perceives science, and physics in particular.  And the incident taught me that relating to children is about relating to them as small people, with developed minds, who may not have the breadth of education and experience, but who inquire just the same.

It seems that I share this fascination with none other than Alan Alda.  I’m not going to pretend to be some huge connoisseur of his work, although I always find his acting enjoyable, but I am a huge fan of his recent Science magazine editorial.  There, he writes about a frustrating experience he had as a child and how it shaped his efforts to expand the awareness of the importance of communication in the field of science. In my personal blog, I’ve written about my issues with the various ways in which popular culture embraces the stereotypes of science and the scientists, most notably in the popular CBS show The Big Bang Theory.

I think the problem of explaining science to children hits on the key issue facing the perception of science today: Science is seen as apart from everyday life, when in fact it is everyday life.  By brushing off a child’s question, Alda’s teacher told him that it wasn’t worth her time to explain a scientific phenomenon to him.  It smacks of “you wouldn’t understand” along with “maybe when you’re older,” both phrases that have much less place in explaining science than people seem to think.  Sitting down and trying to explain science to a child shows the child that you value his intelligence.  He may not catch everything in your explanation, but he’ll appreciate that you consider him smart enough to try.  The very fact that Alda feels the need to issue “The Flame Challenge” should make 11-year-olds everywhere feel like the real winners of the challenge.

As a scientist with an expertise in something that most people could go their lives without encountering, I live my own version of the flame challenge, whenever anyone outside of my field asks what I do.  And my answer has to vary, based on what I know about my audience’s experiences and areas of interest.  I wouldn’t explain my research the same way to my dentist that I would to my engineer uncle.  But the idea is the same: I have to make an effort to make my research understandable to someone without a strong physics background, or else why should they care what I do?  And if I can’t make my own family care about what I do, how could someone like make a politician, who might be responsible for funding, care about it?

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