Congratulations to Ben Ames, winner of Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge! Ames, 31, combined his musical talents with his scientific expertise (he’s working on his PhD in quantum optics) to create this awesome music video that explains with toe-tapping clarity exactly how a flame works.
Alda introduced Ames and other contestants on June 1 to a packed auditorium at the Paley Center for Media as part of the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City.
Panelists discussed the modern challenges of science communication. (Click here to watch the full webcast.) As Alda pointed out, the task of unpacking difficult science concepts for a general audience presents a difficult conundrum: On the one hand, a scientist must understand his subject deeply enough to simplify it. On the other hand, the deeper your knowledge, the more difficult it can become to explain it to others. Alda calls this the curse of knowledge. “If you a reach a point where you don’t remember what it’s like to not know what you know, you won’t speak in the language of the uninitiated,” he said. “You’ll talk in this rarefied language.”
Alda, who co-founded the Center for Communication Science to help researchers solve this problem and improve their communication skills, offered a number of tips worth sharing:
Tip #1: No notes! Don’t read to an audience. “It changes entirely the way you communicate. It changes your voice. You get this rhythmic pattern and it doesn’t sound human,” he said. “Whereas if you’re looking them in the eye and you’re trying to connect to these people, it’s going to come out in tones and rhythms that are natural.”
Tip#2: Establish an emotional connection to remember concepts and stories. A memory expert once told Alda that we remember things because of emotion. To illustrate his point, he shared a story about ancient villagers who had devised a way to help young people remember notable events for decades. After the kids would watch the event, the villagers would toss them into a cold river. When they fished the kids out of the water, you could pretty much guarantee that they’d always remember that day! “You don’t have to throw your audience in a river, but allow your natural self to come out,” says Alda.
Tip #3: Use metaphors and humor, although don’t dumb it down. As one young Flame Challenge judge said, “I mean, we’re 11, not 7.”