Lessons from the Stars: Interview with Adam Frank

By Ryan Maher

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018) by Adam Frank received the 2019 Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science. The Award in Science recognizes superior books by scientists written to illuminate aspects of science for a broad readership. First offered in 1959, the award encourages literate and scholarly interpretations of the physical and biological sciences and mathematics. Past recipients have included luminaries of popular science such as Stephen Jay Gould and Jared Diamond.

A professor at the University of Rochester since 1996, Frank is a computational astrophysicist. He leads his field in the study of stellar evolution, especially in a star’s beginning and end stages. His team developed AstroBEAR, an adaptive mesh refinement code for use in a variety of astrophysical simulations of the cosmos.

In addition to his scientific research, Frank is also a prolific media consultant and writer. He has contributed to both the New York Times and NPR’s All Things Considered, and he is the co-founder of NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. His previous popular science books include The Constant Fire: Beyond the Religion and Science Debate (University of California Press, 2009) and About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang (Free Press, 2011). His most recent award is the 2020 American Physical Society’s Joseph A. Burton Forum Award for Light of the Stars.

His latest book presents a broad portrait of astrobiology and examines what human civilization can glean from the field as it tackles the existential threats posed by self-inflicted climate change. Frank argues that, at the intersection of astrophysics, ecology, and earth science, the study of alien worlds (or “exo-civilizations”) yields a more realistic understanding of our intimate, multifaceted connections to the Earth and of how civilization-induced climate change is a cosmically generic, systemic, and survivable phenomenon.

“Gaining the astrobiological perspective is the first, essential step in our maturation and our ability to face the Anthropocene,” Frank writes. “Through the light of the stars, through what they can teach us about other worlds and the possibilities of other civilizations, we can learn what path through adolescence we must take.”


What was your objective in writing a book, for a popular audience, about the developments and implications of the rising field of astrobiology?

FRANK: I was really interested in letting people see climate change in a new light (i.e. the light of the stars). After years of writing on the subject for places like NPR and the New York Times I had come to see how trapped we were in a political polarization. The split misses the most essential point about climate change—it’s a planetary transition that could be expected to occur anytime a technological/energy-harvesting species arises on a planet. So climate change is, fundamentally, an astrobiological issue. It’s a question of how life and planets go together.

When I first encountered astrobiology, I was flummoxed by how our science could generalize systems of biospheres and civilizations. How can we establish a universal understanding of these systems using existing data on other star systems, on Earth’s neighboring planets, and on Earth’s history?

FRANK: Well, physics and chemistry aren’t going to change from one planet to another, and that gives us certain guardrails when thinking about life and planets together. For example, the feedback between climate and life may be pretty generic if you are looking at a systems level (fluxes of key greenhouse gases for example). So even if life on some other world doesn’t use DNA, for example, it will still suck up and spew out chemicals, and those chemicals are going to effect climate. These kinds of principles can be super helpful in working out the contours of a universal science of life and planets.

It’s clear within Light of the Stars that you want to do away with the notion of human exceptionalism, that humans and our civilization are discrete (triumphantly or malignantly) from the Earth itself. Why is it critical that we see ourselves as “cosmic teenagers” who are inherently of the Earth?

FRANK: The whole “humans are a virus” idea is destructive. It’s not only wrong, it’s also supremely unhelpful for trying to find paths forward. We are just what the biosphere is doing now. But, unless we wise up fast, we won’t be what the biosphere is doing in a couple of thousand years. We need to stop thinking we’re so special so we can figure out how to re-integrate ourselves and our civilization into the biosphere.

In your discussion on civilization’s way forward through the coming decades and centuries, you write: “Recognizing the limits on energy transformation is the fundamental lesson of the Anthropocene.” Could you expand upon this?

FRANK: It’s the second law of thermodynamics which tells us that you can’t use energy to do useful work without generating waste. Waste can take a lot of forms, but you can think of the CO2 coming from fossil fuel use as waste. The simpler way of saying this is: “There is no free lunch.” Planets are complex machines that are also alive. You can’t dump whatever you want back into that system and expect no feedback. If you use a lot of energy it MUST have an effect on the system you drew the energy from. No amount of economic fantasy making is gonna get us around that reality.

Throughout Light of the Stars are anecdotes about scientists like Carl Sagan and Jill Tarter that dramatize their contributions to our understanding of astrobiology. Why did you choose to punctuate your discussions with these more personal, dramatic stories?

FRANK: I have been moonlighting as a science-writer for my entire scientific career. I was very lucky to learn the trade from some of the best in the business (like KC Cole and Corey Powell). They taught me early on that no one will read your story unless it is a story. There has to be narrative drive—stories of real people who face real difficulties and either persevere or fail.

What are your thoughts on coming to the attention of The Phi Beta Kappa Society and receiving its Award in Science?

FRANK: Just gratitude, pure and simple.

Ryan Maher is a recent graduate of UC San Diego, having studied history, literature, and German. He was inducted into the Sigma of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 2018. He is currently developing himself as a writer of nonfiction and fiction.