Tag Archives: Adam Frank

Our favorite Seattle astronomy events from 2015

Happy New Year from Seattle Astronomy! Yesterday we ran down our top five news stories of the past year. Today, let’s take a look back at our top talks and events from 2015.

Comet Hunter

Scheiderer and MachholzRenowned comet hunter Don Machholz was the keynote speaker last year at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Machholz has discovered eleven comets visually, without the aid of CCD cameras and other modern aids, and that’s the record. He does it the old-fashioned way, sitting at the eyepiece for hours at a time and sweeping the sky for something that wasn’t there before.

Machholz told a wonderful tale about his techniques of comet hunting and about the intensely personal reasons that drove him to the quest. It was an informative, touching, and often hilarious presentation filled with images and music.

It’s all relative

Jeffrey Bennett at the UW's physics/astronomy auditorium. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Last year was the international year of light and marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Jeffrey Bennett toured the country to help us better understand relativity, and stopped in at the April meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society to give a well-received talk about the concepts of relativity. Bennett is an engaging lecturer and his book, What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter, (Columbia University Press, 2014) is a big help, too, that makes a topic that is so mind-bending and daunting to so many truly accessible to a broader audience.

We did a preview interview with Bennett as well.

Physics pioneer

Jim Peebles

Science is mostly about brainpower and creativity, and testing, but there’s some luck involved, too. Case in point: back in 1965 Jim Peebles and colleagues at Princeton were on the hunt for what we now know as the cosmic microwave background, the lasting signature of the Big Bang. Up the road at Bell Telephone Labs, Bob Wilson and Arno Penzias had found the CMB, but didn’t realize what they had! To the latter went the Nobel Prize, but Peebles has been in the forefront of research on the CMB for the past 50 years. We now know a lot about the history of our universe, except for the first fleeting moments that remain a mystery. Peebles talked about that history at a UW lecture in May.

Space tourist

SimonyiCharles Simonyi shelled out a lot of cash to fly to the International Space Station in a Soyuz capsule with the Russians—speculation is that his tab for two trips, in 2007 and 2009, came to about $60 million. Simonyi gave a talk at the University of Washington in September about the practicalities of space travel, and when it might be possible for those of us with somewhat lesser means.

The answer, sadly, is not that soon, but Simonyi envisions a day when the cost of launching a kilogram of mass into space might be driven down to $100, and that might make the cost of space travel something that more people could consider.

Simonyi’s story was an entertaining one that was as much about the training for his two trips to space as it was about the technical aspects of getting there.

Dark matter and the dinosaurs

Lisa RandallHarvard particle physicist and author Lisa Randall has a new hypothesis about what may have killed the dinosaurs on Earth. It’s a surprisingly simple notion, at least once you get past the fact that it depends on a new sort of particle that we haven’t yet detected.

Randall spoke at Town Hall Seattle in November about her ideas and her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). The theory in a nutshell: suppose that there’s a type of dark matter that interacts with light. Such dark matter could collapse into a disk, just like our galaxy. As our solar system orbits the galaxy, we periodically go up and down through the galactic plane. Passing through the plane would also move us through this disk of dark matter, which could gravitationally dislodge comets from the Oort Cloud and send them hurtling our way.

It is an interesting idea that Randall says she’ll devote much time to testing in the coming years.

Honorable mention on our list: the lecturers of the Big Bang and Beyond series at the UW, including Andy Connolly, Miguel Morales, Julianne Dalcanton, and Adam Frank; George Musser, who spoke about his book Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); and Curiosity rover chief engineer Rob Manning, who gave a talk based on his tome Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014).


Answering the ultimate questions

There is a crisis in physics today, but Adam Frank sees it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and co-founder of NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, gave a talk last week at the University of Washington titled, “Beyond the Big Bang: Cosmology and Ultimate Questions.” Frank, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at the UW, was back on campus for the last in a series of lectures titled The Big Bang and Beyond, which was sponsored by the university’s alumni association as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy.

Modern mythology

Frank called the Big Bang a bit of “modern mythology,” an origin narrative that puts us into a cosmic context and gives the universe meaning.

Adam Frank

Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and frequent NPR science commentator, gave a lecture at the University of Washington Dec. 2, 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Science tells us that there is no meaning,” Frank noted. “We can argue about that. But even not having a meaning is meaning. In that sense the Big Bang is a powerful origin myth for our culture.”

While he called it an origin narrative, Frank pointed out that many people have a misconception about the Big Bang Theory.

“It is not a theory of the beginning,” he pointed out. “The Big Bang never tells you why it’s there.”

It gets close; within about 10-32 seconds of the start.

“We can do a pretty good job of telling you in detail what the history of the universe had been going back to some tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang,” Frank said.

Fine tuning

That tiny fraction of a second is where some weighty riddles reside. For the Big Bang to work, we have to assume that the initial conditions were the same as they are now. There’s a lengthy list of constants in the math that describes the universe, such as the speed of light and the gravitational constant. All of them have to be just so.

“You change one of those numbers by just a tiny amount and life could never form,” Frank noted. So how did we end up in a universe that is perfectly fine tuned for us to arrive on the scene?

“If you’re an intelligent design person you say, ‘Oh, it’s God that did it,’” Frank said. “If you’re a physicist, that’s not going to work very well for you. What you want as a physicist is a theory that predicts these.”

“People often talk about cosmology as being the place where science butts up against theology, but physicists don’t want that to be the case,” he continued. “They want to have coherent physical explanations for something like where the Big Bang came from.”

Coherent is in the mind of the beholder, but it may well be that such an explanation has yet to emerge. Frank refers to the most prominient ideas so far as the “standard crazy” and the “alternative crazy.” And it’s from these crazy ideas that the crisis emerges.

Standard crazy

The first standard crazy idea is that of multiverses. With an infinite number of universes popping up all over, fine tuning is no longer an issue. There’s bound to be a universe with our exact conditions, and that’s the one we live in.

Then there is string theory, which arose out of the search for a quantum theory of gravity. String theory can reproduce standard-model particles, and it includes a gravity particle. People got pretty excited about a “theory of everything.”

There are problems within the standard crazy. Unobservable multiverses. Hidden dimensions. The existence of 10500 universes. And it all may lie beyond possible experimentation.

“People are really starting to push back on multiverse and string theory—these ‘standard crazy’ ideas—saying these things may be untestable,” Frank said. “If they’re untestable they’re not science, and if they’re not science it’s time for people to stop talking about them.”

“All of the work that was done on string theory and the multiverse may, in the end, turn out to be, in some sense, a wrong direction,” he added.

Alternative crazy

Other far-out ideas have been proposed. British physicist Julian Barbour puts forward the notion that time doesn’t exist, and that every moment is a distinct and separate now. Lee Smolin suggests that we reboot cosmology entirely, and consider that our “timeless” laws are anything but; that physical laws may in fact be evolving.

“It could be totally wrong, but it’s illustrative of the difference of where you have to go to try and think about going beyond and before the Big Bang without getting into the conceptual problems that string theory and the multiverse lead to,” Frank said.

A good crisis

Frank sees this crisis in physics as an opportunity.

“The crisis in phyics is great because what it’s going to mean is that we’re going to have to come up with even different ideas,” he said. “We’re going to have to probe our understanding of reality even deeper, and what we’re slowly heading toward is some kind of truth. It may not be the ultimate truth, but we’ve been approaching a better understanding of the world since science has begun.”

Frank said that, with a seemingly endless stream of terrible headlines in the news, he sees the search for this ultimate reality as an example of what we do best.

“Humanity is capable of such incredible stupidity and horror, and yet we’re also capable of such compassion, and such wonder, and the ability to experience such awe,” Frank said. “The quest for ultimate reality is a fundamental expression of human goodness and hope.”

More reading

Books by Adam Frank