Adam Frank

Everyone knows we live in a partisan age. It's hard to find any issue these days that people aren't ready to square off on, with sharp, snarky barbs.

While no one will be surprised to find these kinds of arguments playing out about immigration or the importance of NATO, finding it among staid physicists — and about the nature of physical reality — might not be so expected. But all too often over the last 100 years, this has been the case, as scientists have disagreed sharply over the meaning of their greatest and most potent theory known as quantum mechanics.

We've been talking to robots for a while now.

In the decade or so since Siri and her compatriots first appeared, we've all gotten pretty used to having conversations with computers in various forms. While your Alexa doesn't look much like a Cylon (the scary metal kind or hotty flesh kind) now, it seems like it's just a matter of time of time before we'll be talking with all kinds of robots — including those that look just like us.

The Music Of Our Spheres

Jul 11, 2019

What does Space sound like? As an astronomer, I could tell you about interplanetary gas, magnetic fields and the physics of waves propagating through them both. But that's really not the answer that matters as we cross the 50-year threshold of an epoch-making walk on the Moon. This month marks an anniversary that asks us to reflect on the profound impact the Apollo mission left on human culture.

The countdown has begun. It's T-minus a month or so until the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 — and humanity's first and famous steps on another world.

Does reality need realism?

If that seems like a weird question to you, consider the fact that it's the one most pressing for physicists and for their most successful theory about the physical world. That theory is called quantum mechanics — and every digital electronic device you've ever used owes its existence to the understanding of atomic-scale physics that comes with it.

But for all its success, quantum mechanics has one tiny problem: No one understands it.

It was a telling moment: David Wallace-Wells, author of the new book The Uninhabitable Earth, was making an appearance on MSNBC's talk show Morning Joe. He took viewers through scientific projections for drowned cities, death by heat stroke and a massive, endless refugee crisis — due to climate change. As the interview closed, one of the show's hosts, Willie Geist, looked to Wallace-Wells and said, "Let's end on some hope."

It was just 10 years ago that I attended a lecture about Big Data and had my mind blown.

Using an understanding of social networks, along with the emerging tools of artificial intelligence and machine learning, I thought we were at the dawn of new age — allowing us to finally manage the complexity of human society for the well-being of all.

It hasn't turned out that way.

On a Fall day more than 8 years ago, physicist Marcelo Gleiser and I sat in a coffee shop in Dartmouth and dreamed a little dream.

What if there were a place in the popular media where scientists could talk about science and culture in the broadest terms?

We're entering uncharted territory.

For more than 2,000 years, we humans have been arguing about life and, in particular, intelligent life in the universe. But arguing was pretty much where it always ended.

For all that time, we never had any evidence or any data that could raise the discussion above two people with different opinions yelling at each other.

But this era may well be nearing its end.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of the upcoming book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. His scientific studies are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Education.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of the upcoming book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. His scientific studies are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Education.

The origin of the universe, the nature of space, the reality of time: These are ancient questions.

Libraries across the world are filled with heavy books that are, themselves, heavy with equations on these issues. But how many graphic novels are exploring these questions? More importantly, how many graphic novels written and drawn by expert theoretical physicists are there?

You don't need me to tell you how exciting or important Marvel Studio's Black Panther has become. It's one of the most anticipated films of the year — and broke records for pre-release ticket sales.

A long time ago, when I was working on my Ph.D. research, I learned to use supercomputers to track the complex 3-D motions of gas blown into space by dying stars.

Using big computers in this way was still new to lots of researchers in my field and I was often asked, "How do you know your models are right?"

Over the past few months, the Amazon drama-comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been the show everyone loves to talk about.

Science is not a philosophy or a spiritual path; it's a way of behaving in the world.

But since tribalism and polarization have made "alternative facts" a reality of public life, there is something we can learn from science to help us navigate the troubled waters and find a more resilient civic life.

The lesson begins with understanding the right relationship not to knowing but to not knowing. To be blunt, if we want to fight ignorance, we must start with our own.

We live in a unique moment of human history where the tools our parents used are not the ones we take in hand.

The pace of technological (and hence societal) change is so fast now, compared with a few centuries ago, that we've developed an entire branch of storytelling dedicated to imagining where those changes are headed. It's called science fiction and — whether you like its forms or not — it has already changed your life.

Science can just knock me to the floor.

Sometimes it's the revelation of some previously unseen phenomena. Other times, it's a new way to see something you thought you already understood. Then there are the times when connections pop up between things you never imagined to be connected.

And sometimes, it's all of them at once.

Editor's Note: This piece originally ran on Dec. 24, 2013.

Ebenezer Scrooge was famously visited by three ghosts in A Christmas Carol. The past, present and future all converged on poor Scrooge in an effort to save him from his own narrow vision of the world and wake him to the wonders of the life right before his eyes.

As the tax bill moves through Congress, an issue has risen that hits dangerously close to U.S. efforts in science.

There are some authors you go to for good stories — and others you go to for good ideas.

Then there are those who do both, giving readers complex characters, richly imagined stories and, finally, ideas that reach beyond the narrative to change how you see the world.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly pulled a group of its scientists from speaking at a scientific meeting set to take place Monday.

The conference was focused on exploring ways to protect the Narragansett Bay Estuary in Rhode Island. Climate change happens to be one of the threats to the estuary and the EPA's researchers were set to talk on this issue.

So, the title of this post should really be "Is Deckard A Replicant?" — but that might start us off on too deep a level of fandom.

See, Rick Deckard is the name of Harrison Ford's character in Blade Runner, the uber-classic 1982 cyber-noir film that, you know, affected just about everything that followed. As for replicants, they're the artificial humans (androids) that blade runners like Deckard are tasked with hunting down and "retiring."

Here is one thing author Robert Wright and I agree on when it comes to Buddhist meditation: It's really, really boring.

At least, it's boring in the beginning. But there is another thing we agree on, too. That initial meditative boredom is actually a door. It's an opening that can lead us to something essential, and essentially true, that Buddhism has to teach us about being human.

Now that we're well past the start of spring, you're probably inured already to all the green.

I mean, after those long months of winter, everyone's pumped about the first buds and shoots — so bright green and promising. But then, it's all ho-hum, leaves everywhere — whatever.

Well, not me, pal.

See, this spring I've been digging in on photosynthesis for some research I'm doing and, I gotta tell you, it's blowing my mind.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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.

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Marvel's latest superhero movie, "Doctor Strange," worked its magic on audiences over the weekend and led the box office.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE")

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.

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.

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