The Flame Challenge

Science  02 Mar 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6072, pp. 1019
DOI: 10.1126/science.1220619

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I was 11 and I was curious. I had been thinking for days about the flame at the end of a candle. Finally, I took the problem to my teacher. “What's a flame?” I asked her. “What's going on in there?” There was a slight pause and she said, “It's oxidation.” She didn't seem to think there was much else to say. Deflated, I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name. That was a discouraging moment for me personally, but decades later I see the failure to communicate science with clarity as far more serious for society. We feel the disconnect all around us, from a common misimpression that evolution is the theory that we're descended from monkeys, to the worry that physicists in Geneva might suck the universe into a teacup—or something uncomfortably smaller.