Adam Frank

Adam Frank is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

Frank is the author of two books: The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate (University of California Press, 2010), which was one of SEED magazine's "Best Picks of The Year," and About Time, Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang (Free Press, 2011). He has contributed to The New York Times and magazines such as Discover, Scientific American and Tricycle.

Frank's work has also appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009. In 1999 he was awarded an American Astronomical Society prize for his science writing.

This week, you can't reach me by email, or text, or Tweet.

This week, I'm not taking anyone's calls, either.

That's because I'm walking the Appalachian Trail — alone. And while I am, without doubt, scared of being eaten by a bear, I'll be out there looking for that most precious of possibilities: solitude.

Human civilization began about 10,000 years ago with dawn of agriculture (give or take a millennia or so). This seems like such a long time that it can be hard to reconcile with the short span of our lives.

But there is another way to look at it that puts not just civilization, but the whole of your ancestry, in a different light.

So this is not going to be an objective review of the new Marvel Studios film Spider-Man: Homecoming. When it comes to both Marvel and Spider-Man, I am not objective. I'm a fanboy, full stop.

But being a fanboy or fangirl doesn't mean uncritical acceptance. No, being a fan means you've loved the material so much for so long that you take exception — serious exception — to someone screwing up your beloved characters and their beloved stories.

Just before joining other leaders at the G-20 summit, President Donald Trump gave a speech in Poland where he asked: "Does the West have the will to survive?"

Since then, a lot of ink (and electrons) has been spilled asking about the value, and values, of Western Civilization.

John Coltrane's Giant Steps is one of the great pieces of American music. It is an exemplar of be-bop.

The growth of income disparity across the world has now become so well-documented that even some rich people see it as a danger to society.

But the scale of the problem makes it seem like there's not much ordinary, not-so-rich folks can do about it in their ordinary, not-so-rich lives.

There is a certain kind of look I get when I tell people how much I love video games.

It lies somewhere between "You're not serious" and "Oh my God, you are serious." And by "people" giving me these looks, I mean adults of a certain age and outlook. Of course, given that I'm a 54-year-old tenured professor, these "people" are pretty much everyone I know (including my now adult children).

So today, I want to speak to all of you "look-givers" and attempt to explain why you, too, should become a gamer.

Basically, it comes down to robot dinosaurs.

A lot of people think of Sarah Bergmann as the "Honeybee Lady," and that really annoys her.

It's an attribution that might make sense at first glance, given that Bergmann is the celebrated creator of what's called the Pollinator Pathway project. So, pollinators, honeybees — what's the problem?

Last week, NPR and I shared a little paean to photosynthesis, which I defined as "the molecular scale shenanigans plants use create food from sunlight."

Now that we're well past the start of spring, you're probably inured already to all the green.

I mean, after those long months of winter, everyone's pumped about the first buds and shoots — so bright green and promising. But then, it's all ho-hum, leaves everywhere — whatever.

Well, not me, pal.

See, this spring I've been digging in on photosynthesis for some research I'm doing and, I gotta tell you, it's blowing my mind.

We astronomers are trained to think long.

A hundred million years, a hundred thousand years — after a while these impossible-seeming time scales become so familiar you can kind of feel them in your bones.

The universe's "most interesting star" just started acting up again.

The number of potentially habitable planets in the universe is crazy big (10 billion trillion).

With all those worlds, it seems pretty reasonable to suppose that life will get started on some of them. And, going further, evolution will then do its work — leading some species all the way up to forms of tool-building intelligence.

But given an intelligent species — think apes or even birds or octopus — what does it take to make the transition up to a civilization?

When discussions about science and religion turn into debates about science versus religion, Buddhism mostly gets a pass.

The Joy Of Science

May 2, 2017

In today's political climate, it's hard sometimes to remember that science, at its root, is about the fun of discovery. It's a kind of kids-play.

What animates the joy and the excitement and the inspiration so many folks feel in their encounters with science is a very pure sense of: "Wow, that is sooooooo cool."

We all live in our heads.

Well, maybe it's better to say we all live from our heads — and our bodies.

From the day of our births to the moment of our deaths, we experience the world from a very particular — and unique — perspective: our own.

The Moon You Never See

Apr 11, 2017

How many times have you seen the moon? Seriously. How many times have you looked up and been like: "Oh yeah, the moon. Cool."?

If you are old enough to be reading this, the answer should be "a lot" (probably in the thousands).

But here is the real question: Have you really seen the moon?

Why Expertise Matters

Apr 7, 2017

I am an expert — a card-carrying, credential-bearing expert.

The great jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis once told an interviewer: "There's only freedom in structure, my man. There's no freedom in freedom."

Science and philosophy have a long, complicated history.

Both are human endeavors aimed at articulating the nature of the world. But where the line between them lies depends a lot on perspective and history. Questions that once lay firmly in philosophy's domain have now fully entered the realm of science. Other issues which might seem fully covered by science retain open philosophical questions that either haunt or inform ongoing research (depending on one's viewpoint).

Seen from space, our planet has often been called a "blue marble."

It's not, however, just the swirly white clouds that give Earth its marbled appearance. The continents: They are what complete the metaphor. All that land, sticking up above sea level, gives our world its distinctive look.

You're sitting in the doctor's office waiting for the result of a test. The test will tell you whether you have a disease you really don't want to have.

As you wait, it seems as if the whole world is poised like a pencil balancing on its tip. In a moment, the doctor will come through that door and, based on the test, your world will fall one way or another.

Or will it?

On my way back from the woods in New Hampshire, I stopped at a strip mall marking my crossing into more densely inhabited landscapes.

The contrast wasn't pretty.

The sky above the strip mall hung low and grey, which didn't help the look of things. With the snow melting, the parking lot was filled with dirty cars and wet trash. People spilled into and out of the stores: a Subway; a Starbucks; a supermarket whose name I forget.

I know, I know. Some of you are sick of it.

As another winter storm finishes crashing through the northern parts of the nation — and a few more are supposed to be headed our way — many of you may feel you're done with snow.

Why I'd Rather Not March

Feb 12, 2017

"The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer."

This motto of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers during World War II neatly sums up a particularly American way of looking at hard work.

No matter what the challenge, Americans have always had a penchant for just rolling up the sleeves and digging in. The idea goes something like this: "It's my job, no one else's. Now, let me get on with it."

So last year was pretty strange, right?

I know you know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about — aliens. I'm talking about other civilizations on other worlds.

What I'm really referring to are some of the remarkable goings-on in SETI, humanity's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The last 18 months have made for a bumpy and exciting ride for those who are serious about the science of SETI.

To help us understand what's going, I spoke with two experts.

The world is a mess.

I'm not referring to politics or the state of the society, here. When I tell you the world is a mess, I mean the physical world we apprehend with our senses.

Last week, physicists at the National Institute for Standards and Technology reported they'd cooled an object to a million times colder than room temperature. It was a record for the super-difficult science of super-cooling.

In this field, researchers inch ever closer to — but never reach — the state of absolute zero temperature. It's a science that has some very cool (pun very much intended) applications including ultra-sensitive gravity wave detectors for "hearing" distant black hole mergers.

In 1889, Bethlehem Steel brought engineer Frederick Taylor on board in an attempt to streamline its vast operation.

Taylor had recently invented a theory of "time management" in which the same principles used to optimize machines was applied to people. Taylor stalked the floors of the Bethlehem plant armed with a stopwatch and a clipboard noting the time it took for workers to complete tasks, like loading iron bars onto waiting railcars. Taylor's eventual recommendation to the company's executives were simple: The workers should be made to do more in less time.

As I move through the stages of my life in science, I'm becoming all too aware of the weight of responsibility.

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