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updated 12/12/2012 2:20:33 PM ET 2012-12-12T19:20:33

Actor Alan Alda has a question for scientists around the world. He wants to know what time is.

Oh, and he wants the explanation in words an 11-year-old would understand.

Alda, known for his roles on the television show "M*A*S*H" and "The West Wing," has turned his interest toward science communication as a founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. Last year, he challenged scientists to answer the question "What is flame?"

That query was inspired by a question Alda himself asked a teacher as an 11-year-old boy. The answer he received at the time — "oxidation" — meant nothing to him, so he launched the Flame Challenge last year to get a better answer. The winner of the contest, University of Innsbruck physics doctoral student Ben Ames, made a song and video to explain the concept.

This year, Alda and the Center for Communicating Science crowdsourced questions from today's 11-year-olds. When they got a number of queries about time, time travel and the beginning of time, they decided to distill the question into a deceptively simply one: What is time ?

"They're asking a very deep question this year (What is Time?!)," Alda wrote on the Center's website. "It's going to be fun to see how scientists around the world answer that one in everyday language."

Scientists are welcomed to send in their responses by March 1, 2013, using video, song, animation or any other tool that might help make sense of the question. The only criteria: The answer must interest and inform 11-year-olds, who will judge the answers and choose the final winner.

In a video on the site, Alda encourages fourth- through sixth-graders to become judges: "The wonderful thing about this contest is the entries are going to be judged by real 11-year-olds. So this is one time when people your age get a chance to tell people their age 'No, good try, but you didn't quite do it,' or 'Great try, and you win the contest.'"

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas  or LiveScience@livescience. We're also on Facebook  &Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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