It’s About Time!
Alan Alda (the actor who performed in the TV series M.A.S.H.) recently established the Center for Communicating Science (CCS) with the goal of encouraging those who do science or teach science to improve their skills communicating science in stimulating and informative ways to youngsters. In conjunction with this he began (in 2012) a competition inviting scientists, science teachers, & students of science to answer an 11-year-old’s challenging science question. Last year (2102) the question to answer was “What is a Flame?” Since then the competition has become known as the “Flame Challenge and this year the question for the competition was “What is Time?” The competition can be entered in two ways - either with a 300 word essay or a 6 minute video. The entries are then judged by 11-year-old children in schools around the country in two stages: first they pick the three best entries in each category (essay or video) out of the hundreds that are submitted from all over the world. Next, other groups of 11-year-olds pick the one they believe the best of the three finalists (in each category).
Intrigued by the challenge, I elected to enter the competition with an essay. I improved upon my initial draft by getting young relatives and local 5th Grade Science students to critique my early drafts (a process strongly encouraged by the CCS).
My entry was as follows:
“Time is not like a bird or a peanut butter sandwich because we can’t hear, smell, taste, or touch time. And we can’t collect time in a cage. We can’t really see time either, although by using a clock we measure time in seconds, minutes and hours. Before clocks were invented our ancestors measured time by constructing a calendar and then counted sunrises, or full moons. But even without a clock we are usually aware that time goes on. We are able to do that because our brain allows us to remember things such as whether an event occurred before or after some other event. Without this ability to remember we would be unable to experience time, as happens when we are unconscious under anesthesia.
“You might think that a minute would be the same amount of time everywhere, but it is not. The brilliant scientist Albert Einstein realized that space and time behave in strange ways. For example, he predicted that a clock travelling fast runs slower that a clock at rest. This has proven true and predicts that if you stayed on Earth and your twin sister took a fast trip in a spaceship you would grow older faster than she did while she was gone! Einstein also correctly predicted that a clock will run more slowly when it’s near the ground than when it was high above Earth.
“But humans invented the word ‘time’ many centuries before we knew of these weird and surprising discoveries of Einstein. My guess is that the word ‘time’ was invented to express our awareness that both ourselves and the world around are always changing.
“However, we’re still not sure when time began. Might you be one of those who help us decide that question?”
I’m pleased to report that, although I did not win, thanks to our local students my entry was one of the three finalists. The entries of the other finalists can be viewed on CCS’s website: The Flame Challenge.
Questions or suggestions from readers are welcomed; contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.