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.

In the Spring of 2009, the H1N1/09 virus — dubbed "swine flu" — made the jump from pigs to people and began claiming its first victims.

Fearing the beginning of a global swine flu pandemic, terrified health officials began planning for the worst. Shutting down the world's major airports became the nuclear option of their arsenal — the last hope for halting the virus from reaching unstoppable thresholds of contagion.

This last week brought big news in the struggle over climate change and climate science.

A couple weeks ago, astronomers announced they had detected gravitational waves from a "kilonova" (I hate that name but we'll wait for another blog post to explain why).

A few weeks before that, the Nobel Prize was awarded for the work that went into LIGO, the gravitational wave observatory.

A long time ago, in between undergrad and grad school, I had a job as a New York City foot messenger.

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."

Every day, we are inching closer to some kind of artificial intelligence.

At this point, it isn't so important whether we're talking about truly self-conscious machines or not. Advances in big data, machine learning and robotics are all poised to give us a world in which computers are effectively intelligent in terms of how we deal with them.

Should you be scared by this proposition? Based on a lecture I just attended, my answer is: "absolutely, but not in the usual 'robot overlords' kind of way."

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.

If there is one thing science is good for, it's going to extremes.

A lot of science's history is just one story after another of people figuring out how to do something that, just a few years before, was thought to be impossible.

The impossible was heavy on my mind last Wednesday as I found out just how close we were to seeing — as in taking actual pictures — of black holes.

The non-stop, "never-seen-before" hurricanes of the last few weeks have given us a glimpse of what a climate-changed world will look like for humanity.

If it seems like a scary vision, you should know that we're only at the very beginning of this wild ride. Things are likely going to get harder.

I get a lot of "climate" hate mail.

Whenever I write a piece on global warming, someone will email to call me a "lie-bra-tard," or something similar, and tell me I should be in jail.

Sometimes I try to engage these folks and see if they might be interested in how the science of climate change works and what it has to tell us. Mostly, they aren't. Mostly, what they really want is to score some points. What they really want is an argument.

That's what climate change and climate science has become after all these years.

Gentrification of neighborhoods can wreak havoc for those most vulnerable to change.

Sure, access to services and amenities rise in a gentrifying neighborhood. That is a good thing. But those amenities won't do you much good if you're forced to move because of skyrocketing housing costs.

That is why neighborhood and housing advocacy groups have spent decades searching for ways to protect longtime residents from the negative effects of gentrification.

The horror of recent events was a wake-up call for many Americans about the rise of American groups dedicated to the tenets of fascism.

This week, you can't reach me by email, or text, or Tweet.

This week, I'm not taking anyone's calls, either.

That's because I'm walking the Appalachian Trail — alone. And while I am, without doubt, scared of being eaten by a bear, I'll be out there looking for that most precious of possibilities: solitude.

Human civilization began about 10,000 years ago with dawn of agriculture (give or take a millennia or so). This seems like such a long time that it can be hard to reconcile with the short span of our lives.

But there is another way to look at it that puts not just civilization, but the whole of your ancestry, in a different light.

The growth of income disparity across the world has now become so well-documented that even some rich people see it as a danger to society.

But the scale of the problem makes it seem like there's not much ordinary, not-so-rich folks can do about it in their ordinary, not-so-rich lives.

There is a certain kind of look I get when I tell people how much I love video games.

It lies somewhere between "You're not serious" and "Oh my God, you are serious." And by "people" giving me these looks, I mean adults of a certain age and outlook. Of course, given that I'm a 54-year-old tenured professor, these "people" are pretty much everyone I know (including my now adult children).

So today, I want to speak to all of you "look-givers" and attempt to explain why you, too, should become a gamer.

Basically, it comes down to robot dinosaurs.

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.

The number of potentially habitable planets in the universe is crazy big (10 billion trillion).

With all those worlds, it seems pretty reasonable to suppose that life will get started on some of them. And, going further, evolution will then do its work — leading some species all the way up to forms of tool-building intelligence.

But given an intelligent species — think apes or even birds or octopus — what does it take to make the transition up to a civilization?

When it comes to facing the reality of climate change, the Republican Party, now led by the Trump Administration, has been slipping ever farther from its roots as a champion of American science.

Last week brought further evidence of this disconnect — but it also held out a glimmer of hope that the party's turn away from the U.S. effort in science is not universal.

So last year was pretty strange, right?

I know you know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about — aliens. I'm talking about other civilizations on other worlds.

What I'm really referring to are some of the remarkable goings-on in SETI, humanity's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The last 18 months have made for a bumpy and exciting ride for those who are serious about the science of SETI.

To help us understand what's going, I spoke with two experts.

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.

It's that time of year again: Over the next week, or so, most of us will celebrate events that occurred many, many years before we were born.

For Christians, it's the birth of Jesus (2016 years ago). For Jews, it's Hanukkah's story of the Second Temple's rededication 100-plus years earlier. These events mean a lot of things to different people.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Time now for short answers to big questions. A while back, we asked you to challenge astrophysicist and NPR blogger Adam Frank with your questions about physics, astronomy or science in general. You did. And Adam Frank is here with some answers. Hi, there.

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 2016 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.

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

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