Adam Frank

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

So this is not going to be an objective review of the new Marvel Studios film Spider-Man: Homecoming. When it comes to both Marvel and Spider-Man, I am not objective. I'm a fanboy, full stop.

But being a fanboy or fangirl doesn't mean uncritical acceptance. No, being a fan means you've loved the material so much for so long that you take exception — serious exception — to someone screwing up your beloved characters and their beloved stories.

Just before joining other leaders at the G-20 summit, President Donald Trump gave a speech in Poland where he asked: "Does the West have the will to survive?"

Since then, a lot of ink (and electrons) has been spilled asking about the value, and values, of Western Civilization.

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.

We astronomers are trained to think long.

A hundred million years, a hundred thousand years — after a while these impossible-seeming time scales become so familiar you can kind of feel them in your bones.

The world is a mess.

I'm not referring to politics or the state of the society, here. When I tell you the world is a mess, I mean the physical world we apprehend with our senses.

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.

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.

So, it's that time again. For the next month, we're all in for a whole mess of holiday-themed music and movies.

This wouldn't be a bad thing if it weren't so deeply joined with the endless commercialism that now defines the season.

I always hated statistics. I mean really, really, really hated it.

Recently though, I've had a change of heart about the subject. In response, I find statistics changing my mind, or at least changing my perspective.

Let me explain.

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.

Imagine standing on a corner in New York City. Suddenly, someone puts his hand over your eyes like when you were a little kid. Then a strangely familiar voice says: "Guess who?"

The stranger pulls his arms back and you turn around to see Bill Murray smiling at you.

He whispers in your ear: "No one will ever believe you." Then he disappears into the passing river of pedestrians.

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.

Summer is the time for music obsessions. That means finding new albums and new artists. It can also mean finding movies or TV shows about new albums and new artists.

How important is it for human beings to push new frontiers?

Is it just something that a few us are inclined toward — like searching out a new, untried restaurant rather than falling back on something familiar — or is it essential to our species' success? Could the need to take risks and expand into new territory be hardwired into our genetic make up? If so, does that mean expanding into space and the other worlds of our solar system is an imperative, rather than a luxury?

Science and politics do not always make great bedfellows.

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

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's the day after the Fourth of July and all of us should be home recovering from too much beer and too much sun. Instead, we're at work.

Bummer.

Rather than try and engage you with a long-winded post about the possible existence of alien civilizations (we'll do that next week), let's watch this really funny bit from Louis C.K.

Sometimes the most important step one can take in science is back.

When the path towards progress in a field becomes muddied, the best response may be to step away from all the technical specifics that make up day-to-day practice and begin pulling up the floorboards. In other words, rather than continuing to push on the science, it may be best to ask about the unspoken philosophies supporting that research effort.

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.

I love going to the radiologist. It's a physicist's favorite doctor gig. After all, where else do you get to see the inside of your body? And if you're doing an ultrasound, like I was last week for some pain in my ankle (just in time for hiking season), then you even get to see the squishy, sticky, bony interior of YOU in real time.

"Is this for real?"

That was the only line in an email my graduate student send me about a month ago. Along with her terse question was a link to a new paper on the astrophysics preprint archive (a website where newly completed research get posted). The paper's title was enough to set me back: "A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight" by Philip Lubin. "Wow," I thought to myself. "Is this for real?" I downloaded the paper and started reading.

You don't need me to tell you how unusual this primary season has been. Every day, more news sites offer more commentary seeking to explain how American politics reached its current, seemly surreal state.

But here at 13.7, our goal is to offer commentary on places where science and culture intersect. From that perspective, one key aspect of this season's political upheaval can be traced back a decade or more. That aspect is "reality," or at least the part we're all supposed to agree on.

Politics and science are two very different beasts.

Science, at its best, tries to extract some measure of truth about the world from a combination of observation and theory. Politics, even at its best, may be more concerned with perception than truth, using the former as a means to advance policy goals.

So, what happens when the two collide in addressing a possibly existential threat to global civilization?

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