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.

So what makes America great?

Well, we can start off with poop: human poop, horse poop, all kinds of poop. In general we don't have a lot of poop on our streets — and that is a very good thing. How we got to this enlightened, poop-free state is, however, a story that might enlighten our own angry moment.

Does the size of space — those zillions of stars and zillions of miles of nothing between them — freak you out?

Well, if it does, guess what?

You're not alone.

I give a lot of public talks about the universe. Really. It's in my job description:

  • Astronomer. Check.
  • Study stuff in space. Check.
  • Give talks about universe. Check.

Let's be honest. When most of us talk about philosophy — the hard-core, name-dropping, theory-quoting kind — we're talking about a particular lineage that traces back to the Hellenistic Greeks.

We grew up with the fantasy and the nightmare.

The crew of the Enterprise talks directly to their ship's intelligent computer. Hal 2000 of 2001 A Space Odyssey runs a deep space exploration vessel while simultaneously trying to kill its astronaut crew. The machines in The Matrix enslave humans. The robots in Star Wars are our friends.

I love going to the radiologist. It's a physicist's favorite doctor gig. After all, where else do you get to see the inside of your body? And if you're doing an ultrasound, like I was last week for some pain in my ankle (just in time for hiking season), then you even get to see the squishy, sticky, bony interior of YOU in real time.

"Is this for real?"

That was the only line in an email my graduate student send me about a month ago. Along with her terse question was a link to a new paper on the astrophysics preprint archive (a website where newly completed research get posted). The paper's title was enough to set me back: "A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight" by Philip Lubin. "Wow," I thought to myself. "Is this for real?" I downloaded the paper and started reading.

This morning I woke to the sound of rain on the roof. Is there any music more beautiful? It's the perfect reminder of nature's grounding cycles from which we also emerge and disappear.

But being an astrophysicist, I was suddenly struck by the realization that Earth is not the only world that knows rain. There is rain falling in many other places in the cosmos. Lying there, listening to the drops falling on the roof, that fact suddenly seemed to carry a lot of weight.

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.

Do Animals Have Culture?

Apr 19, 2016

Last week, I watched in awe as a river of crows made their way across the evening sky toward their roosts south of my house.

Listening to the cacophony of their cries, I found myself with a simple question — is what I'm seeing just instinct or do these crows have their own culture? In fact, do any animals have culture in the same sense we do?

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.

It's the solstice again, which is an astronomer's favorite time of year. That's because it's one of the few occasions where we have anything semi-practical to say to anyone.

"Hey, Adam, you're an astronomer. What's this whole solstice thing about?"

Well, I'm glad you asked.

As we all await the premiere of the new Star Wars movie, I'd like to indulge in a wee bit of heresy. Maybe — just maybe — something far, far better than The Force Awakens is making its appearance Tuesday night.

Now, just hear me out as you prepare the tar and feathers.

When Star Wars premiered back in 1977, I saw it 27 times (yes, 27). But I was a science fiction fan before Star Wars — and I've remained true to the genre's promise ever since.

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.

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