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.

Back in the day, astronomers studied galaxies one at a time.

Data about each metropolis of stars had to be pieced together slowly. These individual studies were then combined so that a broader understanding of galaxies and their histories as a whole could slowly emerge.

You don't need me to tell you how unusual this primary season has been. Every day, more news sites offer more commentary seeking to explain how American politics reached its current, seemly surreal state.

But here at 13.7, our goal is to offer commentary on places where science and culture intersect. From that perspective, one key aspect of this season's political upheaval can be traced back a decade or more. That aspect is "reality," or at least the part we're all supposed to agree on.

There are more than 7 billion of us on the planet now. We comprise a wildly diverse set of ages, nationalities, religious groups, incomes and technological capacities. Given the magnitude of our numbers, it can be hard to really grasp how that diversity plays out. How many of us have cell phones? How many are homeless? How many are in their early 20s? How many have been to college?

On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis rumbled off its launch platform and rose skyward, marking the last time we sent Americans into space using our own rockets launched from our own soil.

Atmospheres, like love, often don't last forever. That's the lesson we astronomers are learning (well, at least, the atmosphere part), as we push outward with our telescopes into a galaxy rich with planets.

It's not an insignificant point, since the fate of atmospheres holds the key to science's most enduring question: Are we alone in the universe?

Human beings have always been toolmakers. Chisels and scrapers fashioned from fractured stones are associated with our hominid ancestors going back a million years or more.

The smoke has now cleared on the first season of SyFy's ambitious adaptation of The Expanse books.

Just before the series aired, I wrote a post pleading to the gods of science fiction to please, please, please not let television destroy this thing of beauty I love so dearly. With the final credits rolled up, it's time to answer that all-important question.

Did it suck?

Was Einstein Wrong?

Feb 16, 2016

Last week's announcement of the direct detection of gravitational waves proved, once again, the enduring power of Albert Einstein's scientific vision. Once again, Einstein was right in that this theory accurately predicted the behavior of the world.

I wrote this with the expectation that today, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, the biggest science story since the discovery of the Higgs particle would be all over the news.

With that in mind, please allow me to recount my own personal history that led to this moment:

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.

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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."

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