View from the Stars

Living on Earth means rolling with the changes

By Mike Costanza

Adam Frank wants to change the way people look at the sciences.

“I’m trying to get people to see how cool science is,” says Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester. “I’m an evangelist of science.”

Frank’s writings reflect that passion and his wide-ranging interests. “The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” drew upon scholarly writings on religion, mythology and philosophy to show connections between science and religion.

“One of the things I was trying to express was how science is the gateway to the experience of awe, and even sacredness,” he says. “I’m interested in the way that the world we encounter drives us to a spiritual feeling.”

That “spiritual feeling” does not have a religious basis — Frank is an atheist.

“Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth,” Frank’s latest work, examines climate change from a cosmological perspective. Based upon extensive astronomical research, the author states the universe is home to a “billion trillion” planets that have the right basic conditions for the existence of life. Civilizations probably have arisen on at least some of those planets, bringing the same kinds of problems that afflict Earth today, he claims.

“Climate change is a kind of generic response of a planet to having a civilization on it,” he explains. “Any civilization that arises on a planet that develops our kind of capacities will have feedback on the planet.”

In that context, climate change can be seen as a stage through which a planet, and those on it, must pass.

“It’s not a problem that has to be solved. It’s a dangerous transition that has to be navigated,” Frank says.

How might we navigate that transition successfully? To begin with, we need to see ourselves as the result of the latest experiment that produced life on this planet, he said.

Major energy change needed

“The Earth runs the experiments, and however the experiments work out, either that species gets to stay or the Earth just moves on,” Frank explains.

Then, we have to make basic changes in the way we generate power, work and live.

“We have to change infrastructures,” Frank says. “It’s not that big a deal — just stop using fossil fuels.”

In the best of all possible situations, we would all eventually switch to renewable energy sources, according to Frank. This, too, would be a transition.

“Maybe in the meantime, we’re going to have to use nuclear or something — just not fossil fuels,” he says.

Humans have undertaken widespread infrastructure changes before: People and goods once traveled long distances via canals, but now do so mainly by road, rail and air. The question today is whether those on Earth are willing to make much more widespread changes. Sizeable numbers of people in the United States do not accept the scientific basis for doing so.

“We live in a weird moment where people are all using the fruits of science every day, and then they’ll turn around and say a whole branch of science is a hoax because they heard that on their favorite political radio show,” Frank asserts. “That’s super dangerous, because it’s a slippery slope.”

What happens if we don’t successfully make the transition to a non-fossil-fueled world? Well, we won’t end life on Earth — though our planet might “move on.”

“We’re what the biosphere is doing now,” Frank explains. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to be what the biosphere will be doing 1,000 years from now.”

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