The Flame Challenge 2015

As promised in the heading, here’s my entry to this year’s Flame Challenge.


As you might have guessed this year the question was ‘What is Sleep?’. This was considerably harder than last year’s challenge, “What is Colour?” (see my previous entry here), mostly because the answer and the story were considerably less clear.

Sleep is a lot of things, but the one thing everyone can agree on is that it’s necessary. We, and pretty much all other animals (well, maybe), are obligate sleepers. There are plenty of observations which show how sleep benefits us, and how we slowly deteriorate without it. But we don’t have a grand unified theory of sleep, and this is, in my opinion, the sticking point. This is the very core of the question, and this is we’re I took my story. Evolution gave us sleep, and we’re not totally sure why.

I drove home in my answer one of the core missions of the Flame Challenge: to inspire 11-year olds. In science we can rarely deliver straight answers. A good scientist (the best, in my opinion) speak in carefully demarcated terms. Here’s what we know, here’s what we think, here’s what I think, and here’s my speculation. I love this. I tried to couch my explanation at the first two levels of explanation, and then make a call to action. We don’t know what’s going on, want to figure it out? As far as I’m concerned science is all about untangling these problems, and I have come to realise that ‘Sleep’ is a hell of a problem.

Having watched all other visual entries I note there are others with much clearer stories, much funnier narratives and devices, and a more compelling style. I like to think I’m competing with the best of them, but only time will tell. I have made one observation, however. Questions from pervious years (What is time, flame, and colour) have all had clear answers. Complicated answers, yes, but answers which the scientific community generally agrees upon. ‘Sleep’ isn’t like these previous questions, but if you didn’t know the research you could  give a single answer in an authoritative way (e.g., sleep is for cellular regeneration, or, sleep is for memory consolidation) and it would look like the field is united. This is not the case, and videos which try to tackle the ambiguity of the situation are at a disadvantage to those which tell an incomplete and partial story without conceding the mixed nature of the field. This is especially true when you consider who decides what the ‘best’ entry is. I see the value in non-expert judges, but I believe the Flame Challenge, in future years, must be mindful to balance depth and ambiguity, and compelling communication. It’s an excellent initiative to ask 11-year olds to judge these questions, but their lack of expertise may – in part – lead to a loss of rigour. I have no doubt the winner will be funny and a little bit silly (and hopefully scientifically worthy), but whether the winner is rigorous and concedes that the answer is far from resolved is an open question.

With that in mind, here are my top 5 Flame Challenge entries for 2015. These videos are a lot of things, and in my opinion they do everything a good video should and strike an excellent balance in content, delivery, and style (and stand to make my efforts look clumsy).

Number 1. I sincerely hope Alie Astrocyte makes it to the finals. This video has high production values, tackles ambiguity, has a bit of humour, and is totes professional. It also concludes well with a clear take-home message. Excellent entry.

Number 2. This video is gorgeous, and the creator, Matteo Farinella is a credible artist and scientists, and I encourage you to check out his other work. This style of explanations affords Matteo a really concise way to express dense ideas. I’d be surprised if this doesn’t make it to the finals.


Number 3. Eric Galacia nails it. I really hope he makes the finals. He doesn’t shy away from digging into seriously dense stuff, but he explains it with great gags and simple analogies and explanations. Killer entry.


Number 4. Adam Heyde has done a great job too. It’s a little bit pedagogical / PBS style (but then again, so is mine). In my opinion it’s possibly a little dense on some topics and veers away from the broader, more interesting question. That said, I think he totally hits the mark for 11-year olds.

Also, points for being Australian.


Number 5. I really like this video by Claire W, too. What gets me about this entry is her enthusiasm, and how she actually gets into the [raw] data, methods, and labs. I was a bit let down that there was no take-home at the end. After all the cool information she presented I was left to integrate it all myself. Very cool.

My First Publication

The following article was published recently:

Nielsen, M., Kapitány, R., & Elkins, R. (2014). The Perpetuation of Ritualistic Actions as Revealed by Young Children’s Transmission of Normative Behavior.Evolution and Human Behavior.

I am the second author, and it is my first publication. Most of the experimentation involved in this study was conducted by Rosie Elkins, an honours student at the time. I became involved at quite a late stage, when my supervisor, Mark Nielsen, asked me to read the manuscript (as much for practice as anything else). He and I have been discussing the nature of ritual and overimitation for some time, and I offered my thoughts on the topic. Though I did not anticipate earning myself an authorship (after all, the majority of the work had already been completed), Mark considered my contributions to be of enough merit to include me – both as a contributor on subsequent revisions, and ultimately as an author. This was quite surprising, but very satisfying.

In order to communicate what it is exactly this research is about, I have created the following video (and intend to do so for all my publications). I have tried to pitch the video at a lay level, and so I gloss over specific methodologies and the nuance of the statistical analysis.

As I am not the primary author of this research, I am not providing the data. Associate Professor Mark Nielsen should be contacted for such information. If you are interested in reading the article, please visit my list of publications.

Swinburne Mentoring

In February this year (2014) I was approached by a man name James Marshall, a Senior Lecturer at Swinburne University (Melb.), to mentor small groups of his students on their final year research and communication project. The project was entitled ‘Wicked Scenarios’, which involved the students producing a 3 – 5 minute documentary on a complicated, intractable, and multifaceted social problem. Solutions to such  ‘wicked scenarios’ are never easy, never simple, difficult to execute, and usually only partially successful. Almost always solution to such problems are associated with unintended or unforseen consequences. James approached me to offer some topics on which I could mentor his students.

I suggested two topics I felt comfortable being an expert on. The first was ‘The Nature of Maladaptive Religious Beliefs’ and the second was ‘The Social Cost of Psuedo-Science’. Both topics were adopted by groups of students.

The first group, who opted to explore the nature of maladaptive religious beliefs, consisted of three students: Jessie, Dasty, and Hailing. There details are included below, but here is their final project (which I am proud to have been a part of)


Wicked Scenarios – Maladaptive Belief Systems from Swinburne Digital Media Design on Vimeo.


This video is a product of great dedication and many hour of hard work by Jessie, Dasty, and Hailing. My physical input was limited to email correspondence, a number of skype meetings, and reviewing draft copies of various documents. However, I really tried to shape the way the students thought about the problem. What are the questions they haven’t considered? What are the underlying assumptions in their reasoning that need to be challenged? What constitutes a ‘maladaptive’ behaviour and when does it become so?

While the approach to building a documentary was very new to me, and the kind of information the students brought to the table was different from the kind of information I’m used to (as a research psychologist), I found their final product very even-handed, just, humane, and ultimately satisfying.



Jessie is a Digital Media student at Swinburne university, minoring in Communication Design and Design Management. Prior to her studies at Swinburne, Jessie studied Fine Art at RMIT where she created a number of video and animation projects, some of which have been screened in exhibitions and festivals in Melbourne. 

Dasty came to Australia when she was 15 years old to continue her high school and higher education. Her passion in animation and photography motivated her to major in Digital Media design course at Swinburne university.

Hailing from Indonesia, Helsa is a digital media/multimedia design student currently living in Melbourne, Australia.  She strives to deliver an engaging storytelling in her works, especially in her fields of interest such as animation, film, and illustration.

James Marshall is a Senior Lecturer at Swinburne University (Melbourne) and Deputy Department Chair of Communication Design and Digitial Media Design



The Flame Challenge 2014

Update: I have received Editor’s Choice for my entry (and notification that it was one of the top 5 video entries). 


This is my entry into The Flame Challenge (orchestrated by Alan Alda at Stony Brook University). This is an entry for the 2014 ‘Flame Challenge‘. The challenge itself is for scientists to address a ‘basic’ scientific question to an audience of 11 year olds, who later judge the best entries.

This year the topic was ‘What is Color?’

First off, having to omit the ‘u’ from colour killed me. Over and over. Now that I have that out of the way let me go into a little more depth. To my own detriment I’m the kind of person who isn’t happy unless I have a project. Just before Christmas last year I realised that my other projects were wrapping up and I needed something new to get my teeth into. Through twitter I was alerted to this year’s Flame Challenge question and was excited to find it was the kind of question a psychologist could answer.

Step One: Learn about colour. I was able to obtain an ecopy of ‘Color: An Introduction to Practice and Principles, 3rd Edition‘ (Kuehni, 2012). If you want to learn  about colour, its perception, the cognitive processes involved, and develop an understanding of the history and principles from a non-physics point of view this is where you must start. It’s fantastic. It’s well written, comprehensive, and concise (despite its heft). I spent a few weeks reading and digesting this book, taking notes as I went. I used a few other resources, both print and online, but none came close to being as useful or interesting as Kuehni.

Step Two: What does an 11 year old want to know? The Flame Challenge gets its questions by asking 11 year-olds what they want to know. Based on some videos of Alan Alda explaining this year’s question it became clear that ‘What is color?’ was not a question any child really asked – they asked things like “Why is the sky blue?” and “Do I see red the same way as my friend?”. This got me thinking. 11 year olds may have a curiosity about the world but they don’t have scientific training, they don’t know how to ask good questions. “What is Colour?” reminded me of a Feynman interview (video and transcript). He was asked “What’s the feeling between two magnets?“, and ended up discussing the very nature of enquiry and the form of questions:

…And you begin to get a very interesting understanding of the world and all its complications. If you try to follow anything up, you go deeper and deeper in various directions. For example, if you go, “Why did she slip on the ice?” Well, ice is slippery. Everybody knows that, no problem. But you ask why is ice slippery? That’s kinda curious. Ice is extremely slippery… You could either say, “I’m satisfied that you’ve answered me. Ice is slippery; that explains it,” or you could go on and say, “Why is ice slippery?” and then you’re involved with something, because there aren’t many things as slippery as ice. It’s very hard to get greasy stuff, but that’s sort of wet and slimy. But a solid that’s so slippery? Because it is, in the case of ice, when you stand on it (they say) momentarily the pressure melts the ice a little bit so you get a sort of instantaneous water surface on which you’re slipping. Why on ice and not on other things? Because water expands when it freezes, so the pressure tries to undo the expansion and melts it. It’s capable of melting, but other substances get cracked when they’re freezing, and when you push them they’re satisfied to be solid…

… and so on.

“What is Color?” is much the same. At what level of analysis would an 11 year old be most interested? I decided that somewhere between Electromagnatic Radiation and Qualia. In practical terms (and constrained by the 6-minute time limit) that story begins with the sun, moves through transduction, and ends with ‘awareness’. At every level we can ask a Feynman ‘Why’ (or in this case, a ‘what’): ‘What is radiation/transduction/awareness?‘. I thought it best to avoid details, and camouflage the specifics with a story. Thus, I asked “Would the sky still be blue if no-one could see or think about it?“. In so doing I was able to answer that question, “no“, and explain it very simply, “Colour is radiation we see“.

Step Three: Make a video. I’ve got a bit of experience communicating, as well as experience using audio equipment and video editing software (albeit not much). I was aware of creative-commons footage. This footage is basically free so long as you credit the authors in the manner they desire; you can get a ton of it from Vimeo, but there are other sources also. From this point it was simply a matter of spending hours and hours taking key words and concepts from my script and trying to find appropriate footage. I found a bit of free music here, and threw it all together in iMovie (which totally sucks – don’t use it if you can avoid it).

The rest is history. Like a good tyrant, however, I want to revise it. There’s a few things, seen with fresh eyes, that I’d like to change. But that is the nature of history I suppose.

The following list are ideas I had to drop, for the sake of brevity and conciseness, but which I’d explore further if given the opportunity:

An Evolutionary History of Colour. When was light first detected and what was it possibly like? When could life discriminate between wavelengths, and which ones. How did colour – in the abstract sense – begin to be understood over the last 3.6 billion years? Which of our hominid ancestors saw like us; which didn’t? What else sees colour as we do, and what doesn’t? From humble beginnings to the incomprehensible present.

The Colour Space in Mind. On what dimensions do we view colour? Can we map it into physical dimensions in a comprehendible way (answer: no, not really). Historically, how have we tried to do this? Who were the major players and how successful were they?

How does Science Examine Colour. How do we understand colour as a sensation – how do we test its boundaries? This is not a question of neuroscience or qualia, but a question of experimental methods, optical illusions, and a history of hypotheses.

How Colour Defies Us. How do we understand colour, despite the contrary information. For example, a red ball under a green light looks red, but if you remove environmental cues, it is no longer red but green. How do dimensions of colour, like its brightness, influence other factors.

I believe results are announced in June… so here’s hoping I get to put up a new post announcing a trip to New York to the World Science Festival.

Failed Experiment and First Post!

This video describes a study I conducted between January 2013 and June 2013.

In execution this experiment worked perfectly. However, the data were not supportive of the hypothesis. What’s a scientist to do?


I’ve had a lot of interesting feedback from my peers, colleagues, and facebook friends on this video. First off, almost everyone agrees this is a positive thing. Making science open (here’s my data, scales, and syntax), as well as making science accessible to those who are interested is a good thing. A thing we ought to aspire to. Obviously this is a thing I believe in. Strongly.

But I also received a certain degree of criticism. I’ll address the most common points below.

Who’s the video for?

On on a superficial level this is a question that makes a lot of sense. Who do I want to reach? Who am I communicating to? But I think this is missing the point. I’m not necessarily trying to reach anyone with this video*, I’m not inviting people in to the party, I’m merely leaving the door open. Some people suggested it’s too long for the layperson, OR, doesn’t have enough detail for the scientist. I’m not too concerned by either. I’m assuming anyone who watches this video is already interested in the topic and is willing to invest the 8 minutes it takes to watch it. Scientists will get enough detail (and have access to all the raw and cleaned material), and the non-scientist gets a full, unpolished run-down of the experiment. Naturally, future videos will become increasingly slick and practiced, but this is as it is, without omission.

*Though reaching out is important, just look at my science comms projects.


You’re ‘special pleading‘ // The data suggest you’re wrong

The data do not support the hypothesis. This is true. As explained in the video, however, I suggest the experiment was a poor test of the hypothesis. It didn’t ‘tap’ the thing I was hoping to investigate. I fully accept that there is a possibility that I am wrong, and that this is a futile line of research. I am not convinced that this is the case, just yet. Future research is to be done.
But this is how science typically moves forward. Scientist believe a thing (based on research) and pursue it. Sometimes they’re wrong and they waste a lot of time pursuing it before finally letting their ideas die. Sometimes they’re right, and their first study is wrong. Sometimes they’re wrong and their first study incorrectly yields positive results. (And sometimes they’re right and nail it first time!). This is of the category ‘We-might-be-right-but-it-was-a-bad-study’. This was – to the best of my knowledge – a novel investigation of self-deception within this domain. More importantly, this was a description of the study and the process of the study. We acknowledge we could be wrong; but we’re currently assuming we’re right and trying our hardest to shoot the idea down. So far the scores is 0 – 1 against us. We’ll try again, zoom in on the interesting parts and report back. There’s no special pleading – this is how most research progresses.


The Guy in the Picture

My name is Rohan Kapitany. I am a PhD Provisional Candidate studying Psychology at The University of Queensland.

What Make Ideas Worth Believing?

My PhD is broadly focused on understanding the factors which help ideas spread. I am interested in which social, cognitive and biological mechanisms allow ideas to be refined, propagated, and integrated within culture. I hope to address both the proximal causes (what immediate casual factors influence the spread of an idea) and ultimate causes (what in our evolutionary history facilitated the spread of ideas) of this question. As my research progresses I will narrow the scope of enquiry and address a more limited and answerable subset of these questions. Current research is aimed at determining at what point in development children begin to understand the quality and implications of ideas as adults do, and at what point in our biological and cultural history such factors gained traction. My research will examine religious-like thought and ritual, but the principles underlying the uptake and spread of cultural elements ought to be universally applicable.

Science for All!

I believe strongly in open science and in science being communicated well. To that end I will list all published and unpublished data here, and make available all my data. I also hope to make videos explaining all my research (don’t worry, they’ll get better). Finally, I aim to communicate science – specifically psychological science – as clearly as possible. Check out the Science Communication section  of this website – it includes past, present (and hopefully future) projects.


Please feel free to contact me regarding my research, media, data, or research interests. Click here.