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, it's that time again. For the next month, we're all in for a whole mess of holiday-themed music and movies.

This wouldn't be a bad thing if it weren't so deeply joined with the endless commercialism that now defines the season.

I always hated statistics. I mean really, really, really hated it.

Recently though, I've had a change of heart about the subject. In response, I find statistics changing my mind, or at least changing my perspective.

Let me explain.

Human life is inherently uncertain. We are vulnerable and we know it.

Throughout our long history, we humans have always looked for some means of control to master our uncertainty, especially as the possibilities of storm and darkness descend.

So, it's Election Day here in the United States.

Every presidential election seems important, but I am sure that I am not alone in thinking this one is different, maybe more important than most.

So, please, go vote.

When you're done, I give you (once again) Carl Sagan's beautiful "Pale Blue Dot" speech to put it all in perspective.

It's been about a month since Elon Musk announced he was going to build a city on Mars.

To be more specific, the PayPal billionaire and founder of SpaceX, laid out a rough vision of sending, landing and keeping enough folks on the Red Planet to establish some kind of self-sustaining settlement.

In 1950, less than 50 percent of the world's population lived in cities.

As of 2014, more than half of people on Earth occupied space in urban areas. By 2050, it is expected that the city dwellers will grow to 66 percent.

The tipping point has been crossed. More important, our rapid urbanizing comes at exactly the same moment the planet begins its transition to a new (and unknown) climate state.

Imagine standing on a corner in New York City. Suddenly, someone puts his hand over your eyes like when you were a little kid. Then a strangely familiar voice says: "Guess who?"

The stranger pulls his arms back and you turn around to see Bill Murray smiling at you.

He whispers in your ear: "No one will ever believe you." Then he disappears into the passing river of pedestrians.

When I was a kid, I looked to the stars for solace.

No matter what was hard or painful or seemed inescapable in my life, I only needed to go out in my backyard at night and tilt my head back.

Science seems to give us a clean path from its claims to their vindication.

Fire a rocket in just the right way, says science, and in a year it will get to Mars. Mix a cocktail of just these chemicals, it tells us, and you can cure a pernicious disease. In a world of iPhones and MRIs, it's hard to miss the power of these scientific truths.

You can't solve a problem until you understand it. When it comes to climate change, on a fundamental level we don't really understand the problem.

There are a lot of ways the most detailed, abstract and sophisticated kinds of science show up in our daily lives.

In a nation that sometimes forgets the power and promise of its own scientific endeavor, it's good to be reminded of that link — as I was this week when I went in for an MRI on my shoulder.

Every ghostly horror movie has "the scene."

It usually comes early in the story, like in The Sixth Sense: The protagonist walks into a room, like the kitchen, and all the cabinets and drawers are open. He's puzzled. He doesn't remember leaving it this way. So, he closes all the doors and all the drawers and walks out. A minute later he comes back in — and everything's open again.

Waaahh!!!!

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We like to think all stories are equal. But our astrophysicist thinks we did not make a big-enough deal of what he thinks is a story so important it gives him chills. So here's last week's news through the misty eyes of NPR blogger Adam Frank.

Look around you. What do you see?

Other people going about their business? Rooms with tables and chairs? Nature with its sky, grass and trees?

All that stuff, it's really there, right? Even if you were to disappear right now — poof! — the rest of the world would still exist in all forms you're seeing now, right?

Or would it?

Summer is the time for music obsessions. That means finding new albums and new artists. It can also mean finding movies or TV shows about new albums and new artists.

A few months back, I wrote a post titled The Most Important Philosopher You've Never Heard Of. My point in that piece was to introduce readers to Eihei Dogen, a 13th-century Japanese Zen master who is considered, by many, to be one of the world's most subtle thinkers on issues of mind and being.

How important is it for human beings to push new frontiers?

Is it just something that a few us are inclined toward — like searching out a new, untried restaurant rather than falling back on something familiar — or is it essential to our species' success? Could the need to take risks and expand into new territory be hardwired into our genetic make up? If so, does that mean expanding into space and the other worlds of our solar system is an imperative, rather than a luxury?

Science and politics do not always make great bedfellows.

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In this fictitious world, all it takes is just a small vial of silvery fluid. Its illegal: very, very illegal. But if you can find it, just one vial is enough. Drink that down and soon the nano-scale molecular machines will work their way past the blood-brain barrier and begin coating the surfaces of your neurons.

This is a year of politics. That means everyone has opinions about where the world should be headed and how we should get there.

No matter how weird this political season has been, however, there remains a key difference between opinions and facts. That difference comes into the starkest relief when people must face their own inconsistencies in reconciling the two domains.

Are we the only civilization-building intelligent species that has ever occurred in the universe?

It's the day after the Fourth of July and all of us should be home recovering from too much beer and too much sun. Instead, we're at work.

Bummer.

Rather than try and engage you with a long-winded post about the possible existence of alien civilizations (we'll do that next week), let's watch this really funny bit from Louis C.K.

Sometimes the most important step one can take in science is back.

When the path towards progress in a field becomes muddied, the best response may be to step away from all the technical specifics that make up day-to-day practice and begin pulling up the floorboards. In other words, rather than continuing to push on the science, it may be best to ask about the unspoken philosophies supporting that research effort.

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.

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