Finding The Next Carl Sagan
A conversation with Adam Frank: physicist, writer, and science evangelist
Posted Aug 13, 2012
These are the words of Adam Frank in his latest book About Time: Cosmology, Time, and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang. Adam fell in love with Astronomy when he was 5 years old. Today he is a professor of theoretical/computational physics at the University of Rochester. In addition to his scientific pursuits, he also writes for the public on his NPR blog, 13.7: Cosmos And Culture, along with Marcelo Gleiser, Barbara J. King, Stuart Kauffman, and Alva Noe. I had the opportunity to talk with Adam about how he became a physicist, why he is a science evangelist, his educational background, why he thinks it is socially acceptable to be bad at math, the role of creativity in science, how assimilation with machines will impact education, and the importance of making mistakes, among many other topics. I discovered that Adam is not only extremely intelligent, he is also a very engaging and articulate communicator with the touch of an artist. Which makes sense, considering the first paper he ever wrote compared mathematical physics to poetry.
Some Adam Frank quotes from our conversation:
“There’s a segment of the culture that recognizes the importance of technology, and they and their kids are the ones who end up leading culture.”
“There has to be a way in which people recognize that having the machine answer the questions for them in some cases is not really having the question answered.”
“I think what we are involved in is a race between the unfolding consequences of the technology we’ve deployed and our ability to adapt our temporal thinking (and planning) to account for those consequences.”
“My big question now is what does this teach us about our own dilemma of sustainability? You know it’s not even clear right now whether or not an energy intensive civilization can last more than 200 years. We don’t really know if that’s possible. We don’t know yet whether this kind of culture we are living in really works more than a few centuries without crashing on itself.”
ADAM: One of my early scientific heroes was of course Carl Sagan. Back in the day he was the only name in town. There were very few people doing public outreach in science and I remember learning with horror when I got to college that other physicists didn’t like him, that they had a poor opinion of him. I thought this was crazy because he was doing such a service and he was just so good at what he did. So very early on I wanted to be the Rock and Roll Carl Sagan of my generation. Which didn’t quite happen but that’s okay. [Laughter]
I’m very much in love with science. Communicating the beauty of it, communicating the excitement of it to people, and thinking about the cultural context in science is really exciting. Both of my parents were writers and so the link between doing science and writing about science came relatively easy to me.
In Science: It’s Really, Really Hard, And That’s Something To Celebrate you mention that at the age of 17 you suddenly understood why math and science needed to be hard. What was your math and science education like before age 17? Were you a gifted or academically advanced kid? Could you talk more about your educational background and what key educational experiences are important for a student who wishes to become an astrophysicist?
I went to school in a part of New Jersey that did not have the best educational system. It just wasn’t a priority where I grew up. My love for science really came from my dad. He loved science fiction. At school I didn’t have any teachers that were particularly gifted and I was doing most of the things on my own. My math was not so great. I got B’s, and it wasn’t like I was a shining example of a young mathematician. But that story I recount about that physics class where I was using math to calculate the wavelength of light, that was really where I got the idea that math was a language. As soon as that happened that is when I really gave the effort to math that it deserved and then, after that, I found my talent. It wasn’t really a great talent, but it was talent enough to get me through to a Ph.D. in physics.
Do you think if you had acquired more advanced education earlier it would have helped you along?
It would have been nice to learn some of this stuff early. My case is somewhat unusual because I was one of those kids who at the age of 5 knew that I wanted to be an astronomer. That’s the irony of it because I really wanted to be a scientist; I just wasn’t getting the math background that would have helped me along earlier. I got the passion from my dad's science fiction magazine covers, seeing those guys bouncing around on the moon, that’s what fueled my interest in what I do. But certainly if I didn’t have that interest I would have been discouraged due to the poverty of my education.
In the same article you cite the statistic that at least 40 percent of college students who start out in STEM majors will change to a non-STEM discipline, and suggest that the fact that science is hard likely plays a role. In some of my research I have shown that STEM majors (i.e., math, physics, computer science, and engineering) have average ability levels that are higher than non-STEM majors. Do you think that some kind of ability threshold might be operating here?
Are you saying that people that are staying in it have higher ability levels?
Yeah people who choose and also people who stay.
It’s an interesting thing because on the one hand I don’t want to say that some people have the ability to do math and other people don’t. People in my Astronomy 101 course have told me “I’m just not a math person!” I tell them, “No that’s not true, everybody is a math person to a certain extent, everybody is a music person to a certain extent.” It’s a rare person who really just doesn’t get it. Then of course there is a spectrum and some people will think mathematically immediately whereas others need to be walked along the road a little bit. But it’s clear there is “talent” in every subject.
In that article I was really trying to say that people tend to think that science isn’t going to be hard, but of course it’s going to be hard. Being a great musician is hard, being a great architect is hard, being good at anything is hard. So it’s not true that science is particularly hard, science has its particular version of being hard. Right now I’m trying to learn to play fiddle, and man, playing the fiddle is really really hard!
In some of my research discussed earlier I’ve noticed that physicists tend to be high on math, verbal, and spatial ability—in other words being a physicist appears to require all three abilities and therefore quite high general ability. Of these three, which would you consider most important for the ability to do physics at a very high level? What about for astrophysics in particular?
It’s interesting. So you’re saying that physicists are higher on verbal as well?
Yeah, actually they are, they do as well or better on everything.
I’m really surprised by that. I’m familiar with the idea of different modes of learning and the verbal I would not have expected for physicists in general.
The verbal is relative to the population. So within physicists verbal is lower than math and spatial.
Certainly spatial is very important, particularly for certain kinds of physics. I do fluid dynamics and have a strong interest in relativity, all of which is really geometrical. There are different kinds of “physics thinking” that really require you to have the ability to be spatial. One time I was talking to my friend who was a furniture designer and he asked me “Do you have the ability to imagine a cone in 3-D and then rotate it one way, stop and rotate it the other way?” He had the ability to do that as many artists do. It’s part of their training. “I can do that,” I told him. It’s one of the skills you need as a physicist, visualizing objects in multidimensional spaces, rotating them, stretching their configurations. All these things are part of the job. The mathematics part of it is a quantification of that spatial ability. Even if you are doing something like statistics - which may not have any sort of direct geometrical analog - you are still going to be thinking about abstract spaces and some representation of a distribution in a multidimensional space so being able to imagine “objects” is important.
This touches on something we discussed earlier. Do you think it is socially acceptable to be bad at math today? And if so, why do you think that is the case?
Yes I think it is socially acceptable to be bad at math for a certain perspective on the world. One of the most horrible things that I’ve observed happening for the last five or ten years is what comes from the denialist movement in science. They often claim there is an “elitification” of science, where people who do science are suddenly not in touch with the rest of the public and you don’t want to hang out with those people because they are “part of the problem." There is an anti-intellectual, anti-educational movement coming out of what’s been called the “Alternate Reality Republicans.” These are folks who say “these scientists with their climate change. It’s all a big hoax to get their big piles of research money.” This elevates not being competent in science disciplines as a point of pride which is crazy because they are absolutely essential for our economic future.
So the social acceptability of being bad at math is part of a retreat from technological acuity, if that’s the right word. The problem with this is that there is an ever widening gap between the technological haves and the technological have-nots. There’s a segment of the culture that recognizes the importance of technology, and they and their kids are the ones who end up leading culture. And there is an entirely different part of the culture that is turning its back on science as being “egg-headish” and somehow anti-American.
In Assimilation: Siri And Your Life With The Machines you note that with the introduction of Siri, perhaps we will be talking to machines from this point forward and that we should be aware of the potential consequences of this assimilation on our culture. What are your thoughts on the potential impact of this assimilation on education?
That’s an interesting one. I see this with my advanced students all the time who are using Mathematica. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing because after all it is, in some ways, inevitable. But one of the themes I keep striking in my writing is this question - when do we opt in, and when do we opt out - of technology? There is a choice that we have individually and as a culture in choosing which technologies we bring into our life and how we bring them in. So there has to be some kind of thoughtfulness for educational professionals and for students about what really helps you learn a subject.
So take, for example, analysis programs like Mathematica that do symbolic manipulation. If you have never touched pencil to paper to do some of these calculations you simply don’t know what’s going on. You will simply not know when you are getting things wrong or when the computer spits back something to you that is wrong. The whole problem with computer programming is, of course, garbage in, garbage out. There has to be a way in which people recognize that having the machine answer the questions for them in some cases is not really having the question answered.
In A Supreme Court of The Future you note that you are an “astrophysicist trained to think in timescales far longer than election cycles.” Some of my research has demonstrated that we might actually be getting more intelligent as a population over time. Do you think we are more intelligent today than in the past? Do you think scientific accomplishments today are greater than in the past?
There’s a great quote that I heard one time that said “It’s not that people in the past were stupid it’s just that we know more now.” I like that distinction. There’s a certain way in which I think we’re not necessarily smarter now, but we have a wider vision. From my limited understanding of genetics and evolution, it doesn’t take all that many generations before genes can sweep through a population. Whether it’s genes or memes - if you believe in memes - I could believe that over the last five generations or so there has been some kind of transition in our thinking. Taking the long timescale perspective, 200 years ago people were still thinking in terms of biblical chronology, so I think now we are waking up to understand ways of thinking that extend far longer than a human lifespan. I think what we are involved in is a race between the unfolding consequences of the technology we’ve deployed and our ability to adapt our temporal thinking (and planning) to account for those consequences.
That’s what I was talking about in A Supreme Court of the Future. What struck me was the fact that we’re cool with the Supreme Court telling us that something new is unconstitutional. We don’t go out and riot in the street. Folks just go rewrite the law and in a way that is in line with the constitution. So if we’re already used to deferring to a higher constitutional power when it comes to the structure of our laws, why would it be so crazy to have some institution protecting our future? That doesn’t seem like such a stretch.
In Science And The Meaningful Life you mention that science is in many ways “the process of trying to honestly enter into a dialogue with the world.” In The Importance of Mistakes you point out that what is needed in science is the willingness of a scientist to admit when they have made a mistake. Considering the cutthroat competition for grants and producing publications today in every field, do you think this makes scientists more or less willing to engage in an honest dialogue with the world and admit their mistakes when they have made them?
I think that scientists are still very willing to admit their mistakes. Now one should distinguish between the biological sciences and the physical sciences, at least the biological sciences that have a close connection to biotech. There are more cases of retracted papers in the biological sciences, so there the answer is a little bit mushy. But overall I think scientists are willing to admit their mistakes for a very simple and clean reason: they’re going to get found out anyway!
Yeah, in a hundred years, it’s going to happen anyway.
God forbid somebody else publishes your mistakes - that’s what really makes you look like a fool. Science really is a noble pursuit born of the desire to have a communion with nature through an honest dialogue with it. But we are also absolutely terrified that we are going to look like idiots. Both motivations are at work in science, both make scientists honest.
There’s a lot of talk about creativity nowadays. What are your thoughts on whether scientists are in some ways artists and that solving a scientific problem can be considered both an intellectual and creative act?
In many ways science is very similar to art. I have friends who are artists. When I look at what they actually have to do to make their sculpture or paintings, the way they to do a lot of experimentation, I see that both are inherently creative and both are responses to the world and the imagination. The idea that science is just about facts is just wrong.
I once heard a story from a scientist who was called for jury duty. The lawyer said to him “Well Dr. Jones the law is not like science where everything is cut and dry.” The scientist said “You obviously have never done science.” There is a mystery in the unknowns of science, sometimes our questions aren’t even very well defined. Sometimes the most creative process in science is knowing what question to ask! Out of that unformed background the problem and the way forward will get distilled. So I think that science is definitely a creative process.
You said that your parents were both artists, so how did that affect you?
I think it affected me very strongly in terms of my perspective on science. Seeing science as part of culture, seeing science as a kind of poetry. The first article I ever wrote compared mathematical physics to poetry. I was trying to show how mathematics really functioned as metaphor. I was raised in a household where poetry was being handed to me along with Isaac Asimov so I could see that the two things were pretty similar.
You have pointed out (I believe when you were at a conference) that “Great ideas can get lost in a terrible presentation but terrible ideas are still terrible even in fancy clothes.” And you also have asked “How much of a good scientific talk is performance art?” Do you think performance has become more important in convincing other scientists that your science matters? How about in convincing the public that your science matters?
Well I don’t think performance is necessary for scientists. Even posters at conferences which can be really hard to extract information from can launch you into an entirely new set of ideas. Scientists had a great debate when PowerPoint showed up. Some people said “Oh that’s so flashy, that’s not the way you do science.” Now everyone uses it.
Every now and then I’ll go to a talk and someone will kick it old school and write on the blackboard. I’ll see that and think, “Yeah that’s awesome!” Most people aren’t looking to have super flashy presentations; they just want the idea to be explained clearly. But for the public that accessibility through really good graphics is important and I have no problem with that. The new technologies are really important to science popularization. So much of science is dynamic. When the electron in an atom makes the quantum jump from the low orbital to the high orbital, describing that in words only gets you so far.
I don’t mind at all if scientific presentations to the public are flashy because they should be flashy, because they should convince people that it’s worth putting the artistry into it. I love the Hayden Planetarium which has been rebuilt at the Rose Science Center in New York. When you walk up to it you notice that someone spent a lot of time to build this beautiful thing and it tells people hey, science is important.
Do you think we will ever find another Einstein?
I don’t think we need to find one, I think one will just show up. It’s pretty clear that every now and then it just happens. And what’s really weird is the way they cluster. It wasn’t just Newton, it was Newton and Hooke and all these other amazing scientists that just appeared around the same time. And it wasn’t just Einstein, it was Einstein and Bohr and Schrodinger etc. So we just get these renaissances. I don’t think we can predict when it’s going to happen.
I’m an atheist, but I am a spiritual atheist (whatever that means). I’m not really interested in religion in its institutional form. But I am very much interested in what I talked about in The Constant Fire - what I call spiritual endeavor. I have no problem reconciling that with science because to me science is a form of spiritual endeavor. It’s a way of honoring the world. You honor the world by paying attention to it. And every great spiritual tradition has its contemplative practice where paying attention to experience is the key.
I wrote a lot about a sense of sacredness. That is something that really unifies scientific enterprise and spiritual endeavor. In my reading of the history of religion, that sense of sacredness came first, that’s original, that’s innate to human beings.
Could you talk about your latest book, About Time?
It’s a test to answer the question “Does cosmology matter?” Now cosmology obviously matters to cosmologists and people who like to buy books about cosmology, but does anyone else care? The question is relevant because we’re heading towards the end of the Big Bang. There are a number of theories that are willing to let go of the idea that the universe began in this single genesis-like moment. I wanted to write a book about some of the ideas that are out there that will go beyond, or before, the Big Bang but I was just as interested in answering the question “So what?”
What does it mean if you switch out one cosmology for another? Is it just like changing the carburetor in your car? The answer I found is that it matters a great deal in the way human beings experience time, the way they move through their day. I found there was a connection between a culture’s cosmological vision and the cultural “time logic” - the way that culture organized the day through technology and social organization. There was always a close coupling of the organization of the day, how the culture taught you to move through the day and what kind cosmology that culture had. When the cultural time logic changed, the cosmology changed.
What is your next book going to be about?
Do I have to write another book? [Laughter]. I’m so exhausted from the last one. Yes I have a next one. That’s the problem with writing books - that the next one appears in your head right after the last one is done. Here is what I am interested in - we have entered into what I would call the “golden age of planets.” We have recently answered a 2000 year old question about whether other planets exist out there and are discovering new planets every day. Basically we’re taking a census now and that gives us new tools on how to think about planets and life. We are also discovering a lot more about our own solar system. Then you couple all that with all we have learned about the Earth - the relationship between the geosphere and the biosphere and the hydrosphere. All of this is a renaissance in understanding planets.
My big question now is what does this teach us about our own dilemma of sustainability? You know it’s not even clear right now whether or not an energy intensive civilization can last more than 200 years. We don’t really know if that’s possible. We don’t know yet whether this kind of culture we are living in really works more than a few centuries without crashing on itself. So I’m interested in this great dilemma and wondering if this treasure trove of planet studies can help us answer that question. So the next book I write will probably be an exploration of how astrobiology informs sustainability. I want to offer some fundamentally different ways of thinking about this dilemma we are in other than just thinking in terms of Republicans and Democrats.
© 2012 by Jonathan Wai