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(This article was originally published in Scientific American)
Scientists are aloof and socially inept. That seems to be part of the message of the video that won the Flame Challenge, a science communication contest run by the Center for Communicating Science. The winning video, made by Ben Ames, was just announced on June 2 at the World Science Festival in New York.
The Flame Challenge, launched with help from Alan Alda, dared scientists and educators to submit videos explaining what a flame is—a subtle concept touching on many subfields of physics and chemistry. What set this contest apart from other science communication contests is that the judges were roughly 6000 11-year old students at 130 schools.
I was enthralled by the premise of the contest and by its surefire mix of schoolchildren and celebrity. I was dazzled by the top entries and the video and music skills on display; more than 800 contestants from 31 countries participated. It was only after my third time watching the winning entry that I realized something was amiss.
The winning entry, an animated video, shows a prisoner chained to a wall in a room full of flames that threaten to engulf him. Then a voice says, “Hello, I am a scientist. And I’ve come to improve your situation just a bit.” But then, without helping him escape or cool down, without empathizing with the prisoner’s pain in any way, the scientist launches into a theoretical explanation of what flames are. This cruel, aloof scientist is such a familiar character that he comes across as funny. The prisoner gets to eat a cupcake at the end of the video–but by then the damage is done.
Now, I appreciate that in a short animated film, the characters must be broad. But I’m concerned that this video propagates the very stereotypes of scientists we’ve been trying to replace, like the socially inept nerds of CBS’s “Big Bang Theory” or the heartless mad scientists of countless Hollywood movies. These standard characters may entertain, but their repetition could also damage the appeal of scientific pursuits at a time when the world economy demands a boost from technological advances.
I have to wonder: what does it mean that 11-year olds preferred this film? Maybe it means that they are already familiar with the stereotype of the socially inept scientist—a crisis we must learn to deal with. And what does it mean that scientists like Ames, a Ph.D. student in quantum optics, feel compelled to reach for self-parody in an effort to communicate with children? It is healthy to laugh at ourselves, and humility is good marketing practice. But I can’t picture a video about a sports event, for example, making light of the star athletes the way this video makes fun of scientists.
The contest had five other finalists besides Ames. These entries were not all videos; some were simple written explanations or static cartoons. But though some of the other finalists used animation or comedy, with actors playing clowning oxygen atoms for example, none of the other finalists seem to rely on the nerdy/mad scientist trope to hold the audience’s interest.
I applaud the Center for Communicating Science and Alan Alda for holding this brave and ground-breaking contest, and I congratulate all the winners. It is not their fault, after all, that 11-year olds have a taste for nerdy, cold scientist characters. I’m looking forward to the contest’s second year, hoping that it will uncover more new ways to excite students about science.
- series of workshops, and a book published by Island Press, meant to help scientists build the careers they want and shape the public debate. Because sometimes, unlocking the mysteries of the universe just isn't enough.
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