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Alan Alda Challenges Scientists: Explain Sleep to an 11-Year-Old

Actor-turned-part-time professor Alan Alda has a new challenge for scientists: Explain sleep to an 11-year-old. The television and film star best known for his role in the 1970s sitcom "MASH" has had a lifelong interest in science. The New York native teaches at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island. He started the annual "Flame Challenge" contest in 2011. It asks scientists — from grad students to senior researchers — to explain complex concepts in ways a child can understand. The contest's first year sought an answer to "What is a flame?" That was followed by challenges to explain time and color.

Scientists have until Feb. 13 to submit their answers about sleep in writing, video or graphics. The entries will be screened for scientific accuracy before being judged by 11-year-olds. “This year’s question — ‘What is sleep?’ — should wake them up to a whole new understanding of that third of our lives we know so little about,” Alda said in a statement. The winning written and video or graphic entries will receive $1,000 cash prizes. Scientists can read the Flame Challenge rules here.

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— The Associated Press and NBC News staff