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 where 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.

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