As an 11-year-old, future actor Alan Alda asked his teacher a burning question: “What is a flame?” He found the response he received — “It’s oxidation” — unsatisfying, the Huffington Post reports. Sixty-five years later, Alda sees science plagued by the same failure to communicate clearly, with serious implications.

“We feel the disconnect all around us, from a common misimpression that evolution is the theory that we’re descended from monkeys, to the worry that physicists in Geneva might suck the universe into a tea cup — or something uncomfortably smaller,” Alda writes, referring to unsubstantiated fears the Large Hadron Collider, used to study subatomic particles, might create a black hole. As a founding member of the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science, Alda challenges scientists to do a better job answering his much younger self’s question, in an editorial in the Friday (March 2) issue of the journal Science. His challenge opens a month-long contest whose entries — in writing, video or graphics —are to be judged by 11-year-olds. Entries are being taken at The Flame Challenge website. The center is also looking for some brave, or just curious, 11-year-olds to serve as panel judges…

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staff and wire services reports