What is Sound?

Sounds of a rainy day

Even a rainy day offers a range of sound to those who listen.

On this first day of December, when the world seems a little drab, I am especially grateful for nature’s rich array of sound. The blue jays insist for the hundredth time on making their harsh, threatening call before settling down to the seed. The doves, already sated, coo at one another as they fluff out their feathers and cuddle for warmth. The chickadees and titmice laugh while they swoop between the bigger birds to steal their breakfast. Even the soft, misty rain that has been falling for days makes gentle noises dropping off the eaves, pattering on the sidewalk, and running in rivulets down the gutter and into my garden.

Nature derives her sounds from many sources. The birds are most important to me, but the water or the wind can be just as soothing or thrilling to another, and each has a range more varied than any human orchestra.

Given the complexity of sound in nature, how would you define sound itself? Let’s make the question more fun – define sound to an 11-year-old.

That is this year’s “flame challenge,” an annual competition created by actor Alan Alda and sponsored by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook University.

Alan Alda

Alan Alda, actor and Visiting Professor at the Alda Center for Communicating Science.

You may remember Alda as the army doctor Hawkeye, one-lining his way through the operating room and the nursing staff on television’s M*A*S*H in the 1970s. The character left an enduring legacy for many of us, although it was certainly not his only, or perhaps even his best, work. For more than a decade, Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers for PBS, work that he described as his personal favorite, and work that inspired him to help found the Alda Center.

The flame challenge began in 2012 with a “playful experiment” Alda posted as guest editor of Science. In the years since its inception, it has challenged scientists to define flame, time, color, and sleep. It is just one small part of what makes the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science a unique and innovative place.

The Alda Center was founded in 2009 at Stony Brook University as part of their School of Journalism with the support of the labs at Brookhaven and Cold Spring Harbor. Its goal is to help scientists communicate better with the media, the public, and others outside of their discipline. It is not surprising that it does so largely through improv.

The workshops and courses offered by the Alda Center use the techniques of improvisational acting to prepare scientists for the spontaneity of live presentation. They say it is not about turning scientists into actors but about helping scientists discover their message and deliver it in a natural, personable way. They also offer training for distilling your message and giving interviews to the media.

As a science writing trainer, I appreciate the work that the Alda Center does. Environmental scientists need to write well in a range of styles. Some of your work requires technical or regulatory specificity. Some of it requires the ability to talk with laypeople in ways that are clear, engaging, and even fun. It is hard to wear all of those different hats in the same day. I hope that together, we can give you the resources you need.

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