Beckman team places in top three in Alan Alda Flame Challenge


August Cassens, Beckman Institute

What is color? It’s an oddly simple, yet quite complicated question. What makes color? How do animals see color? How does the brain see different colors? Do we all see the same colors?

These are the questions Beckman researchers considered in response to the Flame Challenge, a competition from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. Every year, a question is chosen from submissions by 11-year-olds, who also judge the responses. “What is color?” is the third question for the annual international competition—the first year asked “What is a flame?” and the second, “What is time?”

Hundreds of scientists tackled this year’s question, and thousands of 11-year-olds from around the world reviewed and critiqued their entries.

Paul Scott Carney
Paul Scott Carney
Paul Scott Carney
A Beckman Institute team, comprised of CSL and ECE Associate Professor Paul Scott Carney, as well as Beckman Postdoctoral Fellows Bradley Deutsch and David Mayerich, and Bioengineering Professor Rohit Bhargava (an ECE ILLINOIS affiliate), decided to enter—and were named one of the top three finalists in the visual category, out of hundreds of applicants. Watch their video here.

“I actually saw it on Twitter, and I thought, ‘This looks challenging and fun.’ I knew some people at Beckman who are interested and really good at telling people about science,” Deutsch said.

The four researchers met to discuss their approach. As with all good brainstorming sessions, they came up with different ideas on how to describe color.

“We all came at it with different frameworks, like, should we explain it from the physics side, or the biological side, the neurological side, or even the information theory side,” Deutsch said. “We eventually met somewhere in the middle.”

The group used Prezi, a type of online presentation software, to explain concepts like white light, wavelengths, color-blindness, what colors animals can see, and how color names vary between cultures. After the first draft, they showed it to Carney’s children, who are 11 and 7.

“It was interesting to hear their feedback. They said the concepts were good, but we weren’t funny enough,” Deutsch said, with a laugh. “So we went back and added some humor.”

While the researchers admitted it was a challenge to break down a complex subject like color into a six-minute video that was both informative and entertaining, it was a goal they were eager to achieve.

“We wanted to show kids that science is cool and doesn’t always have to be difficult,” Deutsch said. “We wanted to inspire them to think scientifically about their lives. It’s important to instill a love for science in kids now, so they see it as possibility for their future.”

The students who judged the video were impressed by all the information the team covered in the video.

“I liked how it went more in depth, it got to the nuts and bolts of color, because the other videos didn’t necessarily do that,” said an 11-year-old judge from Washington State Medina Elementary School.

So what is color? In their video, they sum it up with this: “It starts with the light source, like the sun. Light bounces off an object, and only certain wavelengths reach your eyes. Special cells in your retina respond to the light, and send a signal to the part of your brain called the visual cortex. You brain decides what the color looks like based on the signal, and then you use your language and culture to give a name to the color you see.”

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