LIVERMORE -- So what exactly is time?
Give the answer some thought, and then ponder how you might explain it to a group of fifth-graders.
That's the dilemma retired Lawrence Livermore Laboratory electronics engineer Nick Williams tackled to win the 2013 "Flame Challenge," an international kid-judged science contest sponsored by Stony Brook University on Long Island, N.Y., and actor Alan Alda.
Alda is a science buff and a Stony Brook visiting professor known for his roles on the sitcom "M*A*S*H" and as host of "Scientific American Frontiers" on PBS.
By comparing the march of time to constant forward motion -- unstoppable and irreversible -- Williams, a presenter with Lawrence Livermore's "Fun With Science" program, bested nearly 400 scientists from all over the globe in the contest's written category. His entry was voted as the best by thousands of fifth-grade judges.
"I had in my mind the Big Bang Theory," Williams said. "No matter where you stand, everything is moving outward. Time never goes backward; man has just put a scale on it."
For winning, Williams received a weekend trip to New York City and was presented a trophy at the World Science Festival on Sunday. A "dedicated 'M*A*S*H' fan," Williams was excited at the prospect of a lunch with Alda.
The Flame Challenge is the brainchild of Alda, who as an 11-year-old asked his science teacher what a flame was. The answer he got -- "It's oxidation" -- didn't satisfy his curiosity. Alda coordinated with Stony Brook and the school's Center for Communicating Science, which bears his name, challenging scientists to explain complex concepts so a fifth-grade student could easily understand them.
Last year's inaugural contest posed Alda's question, "What is a flame?" This year's challenge asked "What is time?" and included separate written and visual categories.
"The kids really liked Nick's entry because it struck a good balance between being clear and understandable, and having enough complex information to give them something to think about," said Elizabeth Bass, director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook.
The contest was tailor-made for Williams, who retired from the lab in 2006 but has spent the past six years as a presenter for the lab's "Fun With Science" program for kids at the Discovery Center. Through humor and entertaining experiments -- like using liquid nitrogen to crush a glove and sucking the fluff out of a marshmallow with highly-pressurized air -- Williams spends each day imparting scientific concepts to fifth-grade students from all over the greater Bay Area.
"It's about the science, but it's also about the presentation," Williams said. "What they don't realize is they're learning something at the same time."
Williams, 71, also entered the first Flame Challenge, but didn't make the cut.
"Last year, I went online to research, and that didn't turn out so well," he said. "So this year, I just put myself in that classroom, pictured an 11-year old kid, and told myself 'I've got two minutes to tell that kid what time is.' That's how I helped myself develop it."
Williams said it took a couple of drafts and several hours to write up his 300-word explanation. He ran it by his 13-year-old grandson, who understood it.
"I personally felt it had a chance, but with fifth-graders, you never know," he said.
Nearly 20,000 fifth-graders from all over the world and 38 U.S. states did the initial judging, their ratings determining the finalists. In the final round, a vote of 9,000 students selected the winners.
Teacher Tracey Ananmalay's fifth-grade class at Los Alamitos Elementary School in San Jose was one of 10 classes chosen for a live video conference with Alda to kick off the final voting. In advance, Ananmalay had divided the class into groups to critique entries.
"They got a real charge out of it," she said. "Many of the kids commented on it being the first time they were able to judge an adult."
The class voted for Williams by a wide margin.
"I liked it because it felt like you were talking to a person, not just reading a paper with facts," said student Emily Nguyen, " Our minds grew a little that day."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Fifth-grade classes are invited to have a blast with science at the Discovery Center. It's at the East Gate of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, off Greenville Road. During a 2 -hour "Fun With Science" field trip, children will explore the center, perform hands-on experiments and learn basic concepts in chemistry, density, matter, air pressure and electricity. To register a class for a field trip or get more information, call 925-423-3272 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
what is time?
"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 ... . 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 ..."
-- Nicholas Williams
For the full text of Nicholas Williams' definition of time, go to www.contracostatimes.com