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.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We usually turn to NPR blogger Adam Frank to explore ideas about outer space. Today, he has this commentary on the messy business of politics and how it's affecting the climate.

Last week, physicists at the National Institute for Standards and Technology reported they'd cooled an object to a million times colder than room temperature. It was a record for the super-difficult science of super-cooling.

In this field, researchers inch ever closer to — but never reach — the state of absolute zero temperature. It's a science that has some very cool (pun very much intended) applications including ultra-sensitive gravity wave detectors for "hearing" distant black hole mergers.

In 1889, Bethlehem Steel brought engineer Frederick Taylor on board in an attempt to streamline its vast operation.

Taylor had recently invented a theory of "time management" in which the same principles used to optimize machines was applied to people. Taylor stalked the floors of the Bethlehem plant armed with a stopwatch and a clipboard noting the time it took for workers to complete tasks, like loading iron bars onto waiting railcars. Taylor's eventual recommendation to the company's executives were simple: The workers should be made to do more in less time.

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.

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.

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.

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!!!!

Revolutionary discoveries don't always breakthrough the hustle of daily life.

After all, when the Wright Brothers lifted their rickety plane off the sands of Kitty Hawk, the rest of the world was just out buying their eggs, milk and toilet paper. On that day who knew — or could imagine — that decades into the future millions of people would be sitting in giant jet-planes watching Direct TV and soaring five miles above the planet's surface.

Science and politics do not always make great bedfellows.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

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