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.

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.

I was being pushed back into the chair. The bass notes were so deep and came so fast it was like someone pounding on my chest. Visions of atoms, galaxies and pure data exploded on the stage as words and symbols, pulses across banks of HD screens.

I often tell my students that one reason to study science is that it puts our lives into perspective.

Yes, the world is a mess and, yes, people can be completely horrible to each other but, hey, check out the veins on this leaf or the spots on that caterpillar. How did they get that way? Isn't that freaking awesome AND beautiful?

"Spiritual But Not Religious" is a phrase you hear more and more these days — and with good reason. In 2012, a Pew Foundation survey on religion found that almost 20 percent of Americans placed themselves in the category of "unaffiliated."

That 20 percent unaffiliated translates into a whole lot of people. It's a big enough number that, most likely, your next airport van ride will include someone without traditional religious attachments onboard.

It's not everyday that a world famous climate scientist gets himself arrested in front of the White House. But that's exactly what happened to James Hansen in 2011 as part of a protest against the Keystone Pipeline.

In the 1980s it was Hansen's highly respected work that helped people realize that the climate change we humans were driving was real — and really dangerous.

If you love movies, give yourself the next five minutes to watch this video.

Every Frame a Painting is a series of explorations on films and film technique by Tony Zhou, a San Francisco based filmmaker and editor. In each "video essay," Zhou unpacks the cinematic craft with humor and insight.

Ah, I remember it like it was just last spring. The flurry of rumors, the initial shock, the charge of surprise, the sheer delight before a major scientific discovery. Yes, I remember it like it was last spring because — it was.

And now it's all dust.

Is Civilization Natural?

Sep 26, 2014

So, there's the city and then there's the country, the built environment and the wilderness, nature and civilization. Whatever name the dichotomy goes by, we usually think of the world humans create and the world outside their creations as separate and unequal.

"Where were you?" my beloved asked as I walked through the door caked in mud and sweat. "I was communing with my gods," I responded — and proceeded to tell her about the exquisite hike I'd had that morning in New York's Letchworth State Park (the Grand Canyon of the East).

Jon Morse, former astrophysics division director at NASA, can remember the exact moment he knew things had to change.

The path from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light and from purposelessness to puppies goes something like this:

  • Around 400 B.C., the Greek philosopher Democritus and other "atomists" make the radical proposition that below all the worlds' appearances, all matter is composed of tiny, indivisible particles.

Why is next Tuesday different from Amsterdam's Central Station?

Next Tuesday is off in the future. It hasn't happened yet, and you can't say what it's going to look like. Maybe it will be like today. No big deal. But maybe you'll get hit by a falling meteor on Monday and be in the intensive care ward. Bummer. Amsterdam's Central Station, however, exists now. It's just over the Atlantic Ocean, and even as you read these words people are there, scurrying to get their trains or milling about buying weird Dutch fast food (try the greasy fried rice balls ... yum!).

Consider this, if you would: a network of far-flung, powerful, high-tech civilizations closely tied by trade and diplomatic embassies; an accelerating threat of climate change and its pressure on food production; a rising wave of displaced populations ready to sweep across and overwhelm developed nations.

Sound familiar?

C'mon, admit it. You've wondered. You've mused. You've pondered. At some point in your life — probably after watching a science-fiction movie — you've found yourself asking that all-important question: What happens if you find yourself in space without a spacesuit?

The news has been pretty depressing these last few weeks as the world seems to slip into a new kind of chaos every day. With conflicts on multiple continents, including a commercial airliner shot from the sky, it's hard to look at the ways we humans are horrible to each other and not ask: What the hell is wrong with us?

How can we inflict so much suffering on each other, always with the assertion that — on some level — it is necessary and, even, just? Is there something utterly flawed in the nature of our consciousness that repeatedly triggers such destruction?

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