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Alan Alda Challenges Scientists to Explain: What Is Time?

Alan Alda

Courtesy of Random House

What is time? And how would you explain it to an 11-year-old? That's the question actor Alan Alda has posed to scientists in the second Flame Challenge—so named because the question in last year's competition was, "What is a flame?" The challenge aims to spur scientists to think about how they can better communicate with the public. Scientists have until 1 March to submit their answers, which will be judged by 11-year-olds around the world. Organizers will announce the winner at the World Science Festival in New York City on 1 June.

Alda, 76, made his name in the 1970s when he played wisecracking army doctor Hawkeye Pierce in the hit television series M*A*S*H. Over the years, he has become fascinated with science. From 1993 until 2005, he hosted Scientific American Frontiers, a documentary series that ran on public television. From 2001 to 2002, he played famed theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in the Broadway play QED. And in 2009, he helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, which is running the Flame Challenge. Alda took some time—whatever that may be—to chat with Science Insider about his passion for science, the nature of clocks, and discerning eyes of 11-year-olds.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: You obviously have a passion for science. Where does that come from?

A.A.: I have no idea. As a kid, I always thought of myself as an amateur inventor. When I was 6, I would go around the house mixing things together to see what would happen. Luckily, I never mixed anything that would explode.

Unfortunately, I guess I was a victim of what C. P. Snow called the two cultures because when I got to high school in the 1950s I thought you had to choose between an interest in science and an interest in the arts. So I kind of dropped the interest in science until I was out of college and married and started reading Scientific American. Since my early 20s, I must have read almost every article in that magazine, mainly just trying to pick up the lingo, the way I would if I were learning a foreign language.

And then after interviewing at least 700 scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, I realized that for most of us science is a foreign language. And we need to speak the same language when scientists are talking to the public, or when they're talking to funders and policymakers, or even when they're talking to each other. If they're not in the exact same field, it's also like they're talking to an intelligent layperson—or so I've been told by many scientists.

The only thing I have to offer is my love of science. I've picked up insights over the years into communication that I am able now to share with scientists, and it's really wonderful. At the Center for Communicating Science, we teach graduate students in the sciences classes in communications. So when they graduate, they'll not only be able scientists but able communicators, too. And now we're beginning to work with senior scientists who are already communicating with the public, and who can take part in master classes so that we can get even better at communicating.

Q: I take it that the Flame Challenge is part of this because it explicitly poses the question, can you communicate this idea?

A.A.: Yeah. Can I explain something to an 11-year-old with an 11-year-old judging how well I do? That's fun for everybody—for the kids, for the scientists.

But what's really happening is that the scientist is being challenged to see if he or she can remember what it's like not to know what they now know so intimately. Because it's a problem that we all have when we know something that's complicated and we understand it in all its depth and complexity, to remember how hard it is to hear anything about that if you haven't studied it. Some of the basic building blocks that you use to explain this complicated process or concept need to be understood for the first time. So to break it all down and yet not take forever getting through it, that's a real challenge.

Q: This year you picked a particularly difficult question. …

A.A.: It sure is! But, you know, I didn't know how difficult the flame question was. I thought the answer was surely not the one-word answer I was given as a kid, which is oxidation. But I didn't realize that, as some people have said, the answer encompasses every structure in the universe.

That first question came from me and my memories of when I was an 11-year-old. But this year's question comes from current 11-year-olds. And they're asking a much deeper question. It's as though as time has gone on, 11-year-olds have become more sophisticated. So it's really going to be interesting how scientists come up with an answer for this. Because you can answer it in speculative ways, I guess, and you can also get into very complicated concepts that Einstein had trouble getting people to understand when he first spoke of them.

Q: I can imagine at some level the answer for many scientists to what is time is purely functional. For example, for a physicist it may just be a variable in some differential equation that needs to be solved.

A.A.: Yeah, and I think that's an insightful way to describe the problem. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from one of Richard Feynman's books. When I played Feynman on Broadway, I would often read this passage just before I went on stage because it tickled me so much. He has a diagram, I think, of a positron. And his caption under this diagram is, "A positron, of course, is an electron going backward in time." The part I love is, "of course." What about the rest of it? Going backward in time? What?!

Q: That kind of underscores the point. For Feynman, it's like, "Well, this is what makes it work."

A.A.: Yes, but it must have been a joke with him because he was one of the giants of being able to put things into plain words. Those videos of him on YouTube explaining ripples in the water and the sunlight reflecting on the ripples, they're just beautiful, loving explanations of nature that draw you in. He was so good at that.

Q: I can imagine that there are things that are just immune to simple explanation.

A.A.: We may find out that time is one of them!

In a way, the explanation doesn't have to do any more than get people interested in learning more and exploring it for themselves. That's what I'm guessing, anyway.

The great thing about this Flame Challenge, I think, is not that we're challenging people to come up with the best explanations. We're challenging them to experience the problems in trying to come up with a good explanation and to become interested in doing it better and better. Once you say, "Wait a minute, this is not that easy!" you might like the idea of finding out how to do it better.

Q: How many kids are going to judge the answers?

A.A.: Last year, 6000 kids signed up to judge the scientists' entries. This year, as of yesterday, before the contest had even started, we had 5000. So we're probably going to have many thousands of kids.

But, first the scientists' entries will be vetted for accuracy by a panel because we don't want the kids picking something that is wrong. Now this is an interesting problem. Last year, we had 800 entries, and they were vetted for accuracy before they were sent to the kids to judge. And even then there was some disagreement among panel members over what was right and what was wrong. And they had to hash things out occasionally.

What's going to happen this year, I wonder, where there may be some aspects of some answers that are neither right nor wrong, but are possibilities or speculations that would require some looking into? Maybe the trick will be to identify hypotheses and speculations as such and not give the impression that it's cut-and-dried.

Q: But what if none of the answers pass muster?

A.A.: There's got be somebody who sends in something! [laughs]

Q: But there's this quote from St. Augustine, "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know." So this is a deep question.

A.A.: It really is. And this is interesting. Last year, when we announced the winner at the World Science Festival, we passed out paper and pencils to the kids in the audience and said we're starting to look now for next year's question. And the first one that came in was this boy's suggestion, "What is time?" It was so amazing that it was such a deep question. He was only 9 at the time. And the surprising thing that followed was that several other kids around the country asked, 'What is time?' And the kids voted on the questions and that question got a lot of votes.

As mysterious as it is, it seems like the question that we all may have in the back of our heads. We guard our time so carefully. And we live our lives according to clocks. But what is time? Is time some kind of stuff? To the extent that some smart people think it might be, I want to know more about that.

Q: You mention clocks. It has occurred to me that clocks are the purest type of machine because the only purpose of clocks is to keep doing exactly the same thing over and over again. There is no other end. No input, no output.

A.A.: But it's as good as somebody sitting and knocking on a piece of wood endlessly. And about as meaningless. Except that we somehow give it meaning. You could say time is what happens on a clock. But a clock is just measuring something. Or is it measuring something? Because when you talk about time going faster or slower depending on certain conditions, then you're getting into the hard stuff, which I can't wait to see translated into language we can understand.

Q: So the judgment is done by majority vote?

A.A.: Yeah, the kids actually vote on them and the top vote wins. We don't mess around with their decision.

In the past—and we'll probably do it again—we had an Internet hook-up where maybe 10 schools are on video conference at the same time with me, and when it gets down to the finalists we watch them discuss why they like certain entries. And when they're discussing them, they're very careful about dismissing ones that they think are too short and not informative enough. I thought that was the most common complaint, that there wasn't enough information.

And the kids appreciate entertainment. They don't mind it if a scientist speaks in a colloquial way. But they don't want them to be silly. One kid said, "We're 11, we're not 7." You can hear a condescending tone, and their ears are really tuned for that.

Q: I imagine that there is a certain amount of self-selection, that it's the interested kids who sign up.

A.A.: I think so. On the other hand, sometimes a whole class will sign up. And I'm sure that a lot of tuna are caught with the mackerel. I bet a lot of kids get really turned on by being able to judge a scientist's answer when they might not have had that much interest to start with.

Q: One science writer once cracked that science writers are in the profession of creating the "illusion of understanding." Maybe on certain issues you can't convey the whole truth?

A.A.: That's one of the things I loved about what Feynman did. He spoke in very simple language. And he knew that he couldn't tell you everything he knew about something. First of all because he would swamp you, and maybe there would be a time limitation. But he would say to you at a certain point, "There's more to it than that, it gets more complicated, and I can tell you about that later." And that I really admired because he didn't leave you with the impression that you now understood the thing in its greatest depth, but rather that if you were interested you could go further.

And I think you're right. I think it's a danger to create the illusion of certainty. Because science, it seems to me, thrives on uncertainty. One of the great personal benefits I've had from reading science and listening to scientists talk is to appreciate the pleasure of uncertainty. For me, getting through life is surfing on uncertainty in every way. And science, rather than pumping us full of truths, encourages us to keep looking.