WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Adam Frank

As you read these words the world around you seems pretty solid, pretty stable: The device you're using seems to exist on its own, with its own properties of shape and weight and color. So does the chair you're sitting in, the table your coffee cup is resting on and the coffee cup itself.

But that solidity and independence is a kind illusion or, at least, so says the very physics that lets these words appear on the screen of your computer, smart phone or tablet.

For most of human existence, things didn't change much within a single lifetime.

If you lived a thousand years ago, the tools you used were probably the same ones as your great grandparents. And other than big events like a volcano, the physical world didn't change much either.

What is the difference between a city and a wetland? How about a factory and a forest? What separates the environments that "nature" builds and the ones we humans build?

While this might have been an abstract question for philosophers at one point, it's not anymore. Decades into what is appropriately called "the climate crisis," humans are now facing down a planet that has been profoundly changed by our collective activities. In our struggle to find a response, and hopefully save ourselves, the relationship between humans and nature is being reconstructed.

Everything I needed to know for Junior High School I learned from cartoons.

Twice a day, before and after school, my local TV station delivered three Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts. There, Bugs Bunny gave me master classes in the Brooklyn-accented snark and wise-cracking I aspired to. While my teachers might not have appreciated what I was learning, those dazzling 10-minute comedy masterpieces were also my introduction to what happens at the intersection of animation and excellence.

If you were looking for a good reason to escape reality, the last six weeks of global COVID meltdown definitely fit the bill. And while pretending your dog is a sports hero or your family a famous work of art work for some, for many people only video games offer the much needed ticket out of their heads.

In 2018, Marvel Studios released Black Panther. The film grossed 1.3 billion dollars and was nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Picture (a first time for a superhero film).

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 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.

Half a billion years. That's how long the Earth existed as a barren world.

Half a billion years of hell before the planet's molten seas of liquid rock cooled to give the world a solid surface.

Only then did life appear. Only then did our world's fantastic history of microbes evolving to mollusks, evolving to dinosaurs, evolving to us, begin.

But what, exactly, was that beginning?

In an era of "fake news" and "alternative facts," we now face a massive disconnect between what science thinks it understands about the world (i.e., global warming) and what some people want to believe is true.

But how does "science" come to know anything about anything? After all, what is science but a collection of people who call themselves scientists? So isn't it as flawed as everything else people create?

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

Just before Thanksgiving, the Internet lit up with the remarkable video of Boston Dynamics' robot Atlas doing a backflip.

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.

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