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.

The story begins like this: In 1950, a group of high-powered physicists were lunching together near the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

A Festival Of Science

May 24, 2015

Here at 13.7: Cosmos & Culture, we strive to bring you only the finest, most complete "big answers" to life's enduring "big questions."

And when there is more than one point of view to be explored, we lock our jaws onto the issue like a metaphysical pit bull and stay that way until someone calls animal control on us. It is that relentless commitment to the truth that brings us back today to the eternal question of why, exactly, your butt doesn't fall through your chair.

Quick: List the first four words that pop into your mind when you hear NASA.

If you are like most folks, you hit some mix of astronauts, moon landings, space telescopes and Mars probes. Those are pretty positive images representing accomplishments we can all feel proud about.

Where did time come from? How did it start?

I don't mean cosmic time in a "Big Bang" kind of way. No, I mean something far more intimate.

Why Video Games Matter

Apr 28, 2015

Human beings are storytellers. This basic, constant instinct is evident throughout history — from creation narratives told around the night's fire to Greek playwrights to the first novels to the flickering images of early motion pictures.

When I was a young astrophysics grad student, I'd return home a couple of times a year. Eating dinner with some of my extended family, one of my great aunts would invariably ask why, at age 28, I was still in school.

I'd tell her about my work studying the evolution of stars — how they're born, how they die. But no matter how poetic or uplifting I tried to make my explanations, she'd always bring the conversation to an abrupt halt with the same question: "So what's it good for?"

Then they launched the Hubble Space Telescope.

Right now, at this very moment, you are submerged in an invisible sea of information. Thoughts, ideas, ambitions and instructions — they are whispering past and through you on waves of modulated electromagnetic energy. From wireless Internet to satellite TV, you are bathed in an endless stream of purposeful, intentional signal.

Everyone knows that space is big and empty. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, author of Life, The Universe and Everything: "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the pharmacy, but that's just peanuts to space."

The night sky carries the weight of many meanings for humanity. It's the home of the gods (or God). It's the essence of distance. It's the embodiment of infinities.

Imagine, for a moment, that every Web search gave only accurate, verified information. Imagine that questions concerning real facts about the real world returned lists of websites ordered by how well those site's facts matched the real world.

Search for "Barack Obama's nationality," and websites claiming "Kenya" would be banished to the 32nd page of the list. Search for "measles and autism" and you'd have to scroll down for 10 minutes before you found a page claiming they were linked.

Let's begin with your great-great-great-etc.-grandparents. I'm talking eight or nine of those "greats," meaning your ancestors living around the first decades of the 1800s.

There is a TV show dedicated to big ideas. There is a website just for big thinking and another for big questions. The search for "big truths" seems pretty popular right now.

When Charles Darwin first taught us how to think about evolution, he also was teaching us to think about time. By allowing natural selection to work over millions of years, what might seem like a divine miracle (the creation of a new kind of animal) became something much more grounded (though equally wondrous).

On Sunday, The New York Times ran a damning story about Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, a scientist who's played an outsized role in the public debate over climate change.

Shock, Awe And Science

Feb 17, 2015

Imagine you walked outside one morning and there was a 30,000-pound cat sitting in your front yard. Imagine that, on the way to work, you walked past a mushroom the size of a house. Imagine that, in the midst of all the mundane, day-to-day things you take for granted, something utterly new — and utterly unexpected — plopped itself into your reality.

There are many invisible realities that lie hidden from us. Some things happen too fast for us to see. Some things are too small to see. Some things are too far away. Some things, however, are right in front of us, but we are just in the wrong position to get a clear view.

When I was kid, there was this commercial that became a 1970s version of a meme. In it, Mother Nature is seen in a forest with a gathering of animals telling fairytales about Goldilocks eating porridge covered with sweet butter. When informed that her porridge is, in fact, slathered in Chiffon margarine and not butter, Mother Nature becomes enraged. As the sky darkens and the clouds rumble, she snarls, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!"

There's a battle going on at the edge of the universe, but it's getting fought right here on Earth. With roots stretching back as far as the ancient Greeks, in the eyes of champions on either side, this fight is a contest over nothing less than the future of science. It's a conflict over the biggest cosmic questions humans can ask and the methods we use — or can use — to get answers for those questions.

Last week, a young man named Alex Malarkey made news when he publicly retracted his story that he'd been to heaven. This, understandably, may not seem like news to some people. But Malarkey's story, based on the tragedy of an auto accident when he was just 6 years old, became a best-selling book called The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven.

Climate And Other Worlds

Jan 19, 2015

The news this week that 2014 was the warmest year in recorded history puts climate change back on the front page (not that it ever really left).

How much do you think you are missing right now — in this very moment, as you sit reading these words? How much of the world's grace and power do you think is cascading around you unseen like a swift, invisible river?

Most of it.

Imagine, for a moment, that Albert Einstein's greatest contributions were kept secret at the highest levels of government. Imagine, for a moment, that while still relatively young, Einstein was prosecuted, shamed and driven to suicide for the inclinations of his affections. Imagine, for a moment, that in the wake of the secrecy, the shame and the suicide, you never knew Albert Einstein's name.

It was late at night one Christmas Eve in the mid-1980s — New York City was a still a murky mix of squalor and grandeur then — when I found myself stranded at a bus stop near 121rd Street after a botched reunion with an ex-girlfriend. The street was empty and quiet and peaceful in a way only Christmas Eve (or apocalyptic blizzards) can manifest.

If I asked you to picture the universe in your head, you'd probably conjure up images of fiery stars and swirling galaxies.

We human beings are curious by nature. Since the time we first began gathering around campfires to ward off the terrors of the night, some questions have haunted us like stubborn ghosts.

Many of these great unknowns have fallen under the weight of passing millennia and the advance of technology. We moderns now know why the ground shakes in an earthquake and why the sky rumbles in a thunderstorm.

So, I'm in love and it's not an easy thing.

Though my beloved is beautiful and subtle and bestowed of great grace, there also is a terrible distance between us. Nothing I do can bridge that gulf, and the object of my affections will not acknowledge me. But I don't care. For those in love know that enduring the indifference and the distance is nothing but a tiny price to pay.

My love, of course, is a star. Her name is Mira.

There are many things you can be thankful for this year. You have your health, your beloved, your children, your family, your friends, your work, your home and your pets. But, of course, it may be that this year difficulties appeared in any one of these domains. There is a portion of suffering visited upon each of us — and its burden can, at times, be crushing.

"I want you to hold off on your intellectual gag response," the speaker told us. "I want you to stay with me through this 'til we get to the end."

Are You Important?

Nov 11, 2014

What if there were a science that could help you understand why high school was (for so many of us) so horrible? What if there were a science that laid bare the dynamics of cliques, "in" crowds and outsiders with the mathematical precision of a moon shot?

Well, there pretty much is such a science — and, as the age of "big data" rises, this new field called network science is opening vistas on everything from high school social webs to the spread of deadly diseases.

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