The Flame Challenge 2014 / 2015

2015 – What is Sleep

Outcome: Finalist, but not a winner.

Wow. The finalists for the 2015 Flame Challenge have been announced, and I have the honour to count myself among them. I’m incredibly flattered and humbled to be included, and would like to thank everyone who voted (and continues to vote!).

For those who haven’t seen my entry, here it is:

And for teachers, or those who know teachers, you can register your class to participate and vote for the best video and written entries here via the Flame Challenge website.

When I first submitted I wrote a post discussing my thoughts on the 2015 competition, in which I selected my top 5 entries, and made a few bold claims. Based on the other two entries that made the final list (both from my favourites!), I have to admit: I may have been wrong. At the very least… I have changed my mind. I argued that with such a time constraint, and with a particularly lay audience, videos that included a lot of ambiguity were at a disadvantage to those that presented a clear, authoritative answer without conceding the difficulty of the field [of sleep]. Well, credit to every 11 year old who judged! Both other entries go some way to making this concession, while at the same time covering a considerable range of information. That said, this question is qualitatively different from previous years, but my concerns are somewhat diminished.

I guess I should have been more generous, though. When I gave a presentation on Colour (last year’s topic)  to 11-year-olds at a local primary school, they loved it, got on board with concepts I thought were particularly difficult, and asked a few tricky questions.

Presenting to 11-year-olds on the topic of Colour. This image features a contrast illusion in which, when the full image is presented, the same object can look black under some conditions, but white under others.

Presenting to 11-year-olds on the topic of Colour. This image features a contrast illusion in which, when the full image is presented, the same object can look black under some conditions, but white under others.

So, props to both Matteo Farinella and Eric Galacia [no link available] for winning the hearts and minds of the Flame Challenge judges. Their entries can be viewed at the 2015 Flame Challenge, or in my previous post. Best of luck to both them! It’s hard for me to pick my favourite – Galacia’s humour hits the spot and his knowledge of his audience is clear, but Farinella brings a broad range of information to his audience with a unique style.

And of course, GOOD LUCK to the JUDGES who, I hope one day, will becomes scientists, too!

If you’ve found your way to my website and would like more information, you can contact me here, or follow me on twitter (@psycasm).


2014 – What is Color

Outcome: Editors Choice.

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.

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