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.

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.

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.

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.

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