Safety First, What Is A Flame? | March 26, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 13 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 13 | p. 64 | Newscripts
Issue Date: March 26, 2012

Safety First, What Is A Flame?

Department: Newscripts | Collection: Women in Chemistry
Keywords: chemistry toys, Lego, safety, Alan Alda, Flame Challenge, science communication
Questionable attire: This Lego science gal needs some safety help.
Credit: Lego
This is a photo of Olivia’s Inventor’s Workshop, which is a new toy by Lego.
Questionable attire: This Lego science gal needs some safety help.
Credit: Lego

Boxes of Legos, featuring adventurous characters and vehicles, are easily recognizable on any toy store shelf. But instead of offering the usual space shuttles and trains, a new Lego product line features a science lab. The Lego Friends toys, with their series of female figurines, are sold in purple boxes, with a target audience of girls age five to 12.

Ph.D. chemist Thomasin Miller of Houston notified Newscripts of these toys, highlighting one of the female characters, Olivia, and her Invention Workshop. Miller says, “As a female Ph.D. chemist, I sincerely applaud Lego for making such neat toys.”

According to Lego’s website, Olivia’s workshop comes with a workbench, a micro­scope, a chalkboard, a pet robot, power tools, a crystal, chemist jars, and an oil can—some serious, and varied, lab equipment.

But Miller points out some details the company has overlooked. “Olivia has not been given the proper safety training for working in a laboratory with chemicals,” she notes. “She lacks safety goggles and is wearing a sleeveless shirt, shorts, and sandals,” Miller laments. “How about some safety glasses and a lab coat to encourage safe creativity?”

Additionally, Olivia’s hair is not pulled back, and there are flowers and hearts drawn on the chalkboard, which is filled with symbols that don’t equate to anything scientific.

Lego’s website mentions that the Lego Friends have “thousands of customizable hair and fashion combinations.” Perhaps safety gear and a ponytail should be the next accessories the company develops for Olivia.

Burning question: Alda challenges scientists to explain a flame.
Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN/Shutterstock
Alan Alda has been asking the question “What is a flame,” since he was 11 years old.
Burning question: Alda challenges scientists to explain a flame.
Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN/Shutterstock

Chemistry-themed Legos might not have been around when actor and science advocate Alan Alda was a kid, but that didn’t stop him from being curious about the central science. At the ripe young age of 11, Alda asked his science teacher, “What is a flame?”

And she responded, “It’s oxidation.”

To an 11 year old, that doesn’t mean much. And at 76, Alda’s still searching for a suitable response. Along with the State University of New York, Stony Brook’s Center for Communicating Science, Alda has presented the world with a challenge, appropriately called the Flame Challenge.

The task is simple: “Answer the question—‘What is a flame?’—in a way that an 11 year old would find intelligible and maybe even fun,” states.

In an editorial in Science this month, Alda reminds readers that “scientists urgently need to be able to speak with clarity to funders, policymakers, students, the general public, and even other scientists” (DOI: 10.1126/science.1220619). In the article, he announces the challenge to promote science talk and avoid science jargon.

Answers to the burning question are due to by April 2. Entries can be in the form of a recorded explanation, a written response, or an illustration.

The winner will receive a VIP pass to the 5th annual World Science Festival in New York City, held May 30 to June 3, organized by the nonprofit Science Festival Foundation.

To support the mission of the challenge, after a team of well-seasoned scientists has screened the entries for accuracy, a panel of 11 year olds will choose the final winner. To learn how to become a panelist, contact .

And this week, at the ACS national meeting in San Diego, attendees can answer the question by visiting booth 638 in the exposition. There will be video cameras on hand to record answers, and these recordings can be submitted to the Flame Challenge.

We hope Newscripts readers will enter. But remember, if an experiment is involved in your submission, be sure to cover those toes and wear safety goggles.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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