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.

In a recent Skype call with a Dutch friend, we discussed her kids and their college experience. Apparently, there had been protests on campus about costs and payments.

"How much are they paying now?" I asked, gritting my teeth in preparation for the answer. "Well," she said, "it's now about 1,800 euro a year."

Wow.

Imagine that, while traveling, you find yourself in a new city and decide to go to the zoo.

After looking around for a while, you notice something odd. All of the animals you see come in three sexes. There is the usual male and female — and there's also a third sex called zplif.

Male, female and zplif. That would pretty weird, right?

So, it finally snowed for real here in Rochester last night.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: Upstate New York equals lots of snow. Well, not for us this weird winter. (Buffalo, of course, has gotten its share.)

Politics and science are two very different beasts.

Science, at its best, tries to extract some measure of truth about the world from a combination of observation and theory. Politics, even at its best, may be more concerned with perception than truth, using the former as a means to advance policy goals.

So, what happens when the two collide in addressing a possibly existential threat to global civilization?

How Real Is Reality?

Jan 5, 2016

Each day when you wake up, the world is, for the most part, unchanged from the day before.

The sun rises again in the east. Your underwear falls if you drop it. The water in the sink spirals down the drain like always. Just as important, your mattress won't turn into a sports car and you can't jump into the air and fly like Superman.

Reality, in other words, seems pretty stubborn, pretty fixed — and pretty much independent of whatever is going on in your head.

But is it? Is it really all those things?

So, just cause it's the sweet space between Christmas and New Year's doesn't mean you can't still learn new, cool things — like physics.

Today's coolness is the Magnus effect, which is all about how spinning, flying things get driven sideways.

The Paris climate meeting is now heading into its home stretch, as world leaders debate what to make of a human future on a changing planet.

As an astronomer, however, I'm used to taking the long view on things. From that perspective, a startlingly different understanding of climate change appears from what I often see people talking about. From the long view — which for climate is the only view that makes sense — it's clear we're looking at climate all wrong.

This year at Thanksgiving tables across America, folks will sit down with family and ask themselves the time-honored question: "What am I thankful for this year?"

It's a moment that makes Thanksgiving one of the best ideas we ever came up with. But this year, I thinking of tipping that inquiry in a slightly different direction. This year, instead of asking what (or who) we're thankful for, what if we asked when we're thankful for?

I'm good at abstracting things. It's part of my job description as a theoretical astrophysicist.

When physicist Erwin Schrodinger considered the question "What Is Life?" his answer was the creation order amidst a cosmic sea of chaos.

In other words, life is a local triumph over entropy. But to hear that idea is one thing; seeing its reality is quite another.

There are many thought-provoking moments in the new movie The Martian.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Climate change is a big issue for scientists and politicians and everyone else. Astrophysicist and NPR blogger Adam Frank says we're thinking about this whole thing wrong. He suggests a different approach.

Have you heard the big news? If not, you haven't been paying attention to your Facebook feed.

For the past week or two, the Internet has been lighting up about alien megastructures that might, or might not, be orbiting a star called KIC 8462852.

So what should we make of it? Is it just hype deserving a long, slow roll of the eyes? Or is there something in the story that deserves serious consideration?

The answer to this question is, I think, surprising — especially given the next sentence I'm about to hit you with.

It's probably not aliens. Sorry.

The combustion engine is dominant. In the United States, according to the latest estimates from the Census, more than 76 percent of us get to work alone in a car. The numbers are not quite as lopsided in some big cities, where public transit and other options are more widely available.

The enormous success of the film The Martian has a lot of people talking about life in space.

It's time to change the way we talk about climate change.

Political leaders have acknowledged human-driven (or "anthropogenic") global warming since 1964 (when President Lyndon Johnson mentioned it in a speech to Congress). Since then, however, we've done almost nothing to address its dangers. As everyone knows, the problem is the political polarization of an issue that is, at its root, a scientific question.

But it's more than that, too.

It was just about a year ago that Pope Francis made headlines by disparaging the view that God is a magician waving a magic wand.

How do our expectations, fears and anxiety about death affect our attitudes about the existence of a deity? Is the hope of immortality the principle reason people believe in God? Is the rejection of an afterlife the principle reason for rejecting the idea of a deity?

These questions came to me as I read a wonderful new history of debates about the origin of life called A Brief History of Creation by Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II.

On Nov. 30, world leaders will gather in Paris for a pivotal United Nations conference on climate change.

Given its importance, I want to use the next couple months to explore some alternative perspectives on the unruly aggregate of topics lumped together as "climate change."

The auditorium lights were low as the high school students filed in — and I was on the stage with the teachers who led the school's honor society.

My job was to give a short speech to the new inductees whose grades and activities earned them their place in the auditorium. There were notes for the speech in my pocket but when the teacher lit a candle on the table with the student's certificates, I felt something shift.

So, yeah, I get it. It's just about the end of summer. For most folks, this means the last chance to get away to the beach or the lake or the woods. Just about any kind of "away" will do.

And with escape on our minds, it may be hard to get pumped up to think about deep issues like the politics of consumption on a finite planet, or the nature of math as invention vs. discovery, or how quantum mechanics accepts a causality as axiom.

Seriously, I get it.

As I write this, California remains deep in its fourth year of drought.

One hundred percent of the state of Nevada is in drought — with 40 percent in the extreme drought category. Over to the southeast, 93 percent of Arizona's territory is in some form of drought. Even Washington state, far to the north, finds all of its territory in drought and 32 percent of its land in extreme doubt.

Science does a lot of things for us. It creates astonishing technologies transforming our lives for the better. It reveals unseen dimensions of wonder, from the grandeur of spinning galaxies to the marvels of microscopic cells.

But for all that wonder and all those game-changing technologies, sometimes science just turns out to be the best way to call "BS."

Here at 13.7, we have have spent considerable time thinking about art and science. In particular, we've often tried to unpack the meaning of their similarities.

The New York Times recently carried a fascinating report on how a walk in nature can actually change the wiring in your brain. According to the story, not only did a brief walk in the woods make people report they felt happier but, using brain scans, researchers found time nature changed neurological functioning as well.

We are in the middle of a mindfulness revolution.

According to Time, The Huffington Post and a host of other media outlets, mindfulness and meditation are having their moment in the spotlight. From hospitals to corporate wellness programs, mindfulness is — supposedly — a new path to relieving stress, lifting depression and increasing happiness.

We don't make very good judges of distance, not on cosmic scales at least. Using our own wanderings on Earth as the judge of all things, evolution has left us poorly prepared for the epic scales of all things astronomical.

This week, as a box of electronics called New Horizons prepares to complete a nearly 10-year journey to Pluto, it's a good moment to reflect on just how far away even the objects in our astronomical backyard are from us.

Ceres is the largest body in the asteroid belt. For billions of years, it has been out there, biding its time, orbiting 250 million miles from the sun.

Now, for the first time, a robot emissary from Earth has made the long dark journey to Ceres, revealing it to be a spherical, cratered world awash in the color of gray mud. Except, however, for the bright spots. The weird, mysterious bright spots.

Things are about to get really interesting in the long-stalled public discussion on climate change.

The bright sun overhead was leaning down hard. The heat on my skin felt like I was standing too close to a fire. Each step took patience, as I tried to find footholds on the softening snow.

We'd been at it for hours, trying to cross a broad alpine valley between two sharp ridges. I looked up for a moment to fill my lungs and adjust the heavy pack. The snowfield stretched into the distance, broken only by bare fields of scree. For a moment, I felt like I was walking in some alien world.

Then, I realized I was.

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