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'What is time?' These grade-school explanations take the prize

Elise Amendola / AP file

Dan LaMoore of Electric Time Company moves a clock face at the company's plant in Medfield, Mass. Is time just the motion of a clock hand, or is there something deeper to the phenomenon?



The nature of time, like the nature of a flame, is easy to experience but tricky to explain scientifically — and that's exactly why the Flame Challenge took on time as the subject of its second annual contest for explanations that would make sense to 11-year-olds. Now, five and a half months after the "What Is Time" challenge was issued, it's time to celebrate the two winning entries.

The Flame Challenge was set up by actor/writer/director Alan Alda to follow up on a question that was bugging him ever since he first asked it at the age of 11: "What is a flame?" Alda was never satisfied with the answer that his teacher gave him ("It's oxidation), and so he worked with Stony Brook University on a challenge to generate better explanations. The winners of the "What is a Flame" contest were announced one year ago.

Now it's time's turn. This year's entries, like last year's, were judged by nearly 20,000 of 11-year-olds from around the world, and the top two explainers were honored Sunday in New York at the World Science Festival. Here are the winners:


It's forward motion
Nick Williams, a retired engineer and science presenter from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, went with a common-sense explanation for his entry, which won in the category for written presentations.

"I put myself in one of my fifth-grade students' shoes," Williams explains in a news release from the lab. "What I wrote is an off-the-cuff response, not relying on the Web or digging through time-related research. The explanation is what made sense to me, and what I thought a fifth-grader could understand at this 'time' in his/her science education."

Here's the bottom line from Williams' explanation (check out the lab's website for the full text):

"I think of time as Forward Movement. Think about it! Everything moves forward, from the universe to every second of your life. And because everything moves forward, man developed a way to keep track of this Forward Movement and called it time. Man also invented clocks to keep a precise log of this Forward Movement in years, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and even parts of seconds. I’ll always continue to think of time as Forward Motion. I’ll also think of it as a Forward Motion that will never change, will never stop, and can never be reversed."

During a 75-minute video, the World Science Festival and Alan Alda present deep explanations of the nature of time, and wind up with the winners of the Flame Challenge's "What Is Time" contest.

Steve Maguire explains the nature of time in his video entry for the 2013 Flame Challenge.

It's a dimension
Steven Maguire, a Ph.D. candidate studying inorganic catalysis at the University of Ottawa, won the prize in the video category for an explanation that plays off our understanding of spatial dimensions.

"It's a little bit different, because you cannot choose in which direction you move in it," Maguire said. "You are always moving toward the future."

Maguire's entry is part of a series of explainers titled "Science Isn't Scary."  In his videos, Maguire takes on a lot of the commonly asked questions, ranging from what makes the sky blue, to what makes a refrigerator work.

"I've been passionate about science since I started watching 'Star Trek' at age 11, but I didn't settle on chemistry as my field until grade 11," Maguire says on the Flame Challenge website. "While pursuing my bachelor's, I discovered another passion for acting, and during my grad school career I developed a talent for teaching. The Flame Challenge was a rare opportunity to combine all three of these things into what I hope will be my future career path."

The Flame Challenge continues to burn brightly. At the end of the World Science Festival's award ceremony, Alda said that kids were being consulted for suggestions on the next Flame Challenge question. Even if you're not a kid, I'd love it if you could share your suggestions below.

More commonly asked questions:


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.