Making Science Accessible: A Conversation with Astronomy Author Adam Frank

Astronomy: At Play in the Cosmos author Adam Frank sat down with the astronomy team to tell us a little about his research and why he is passionate about getting nonscientists excited about science. Adam is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester.

Norton Astronomy: Why did you want to write a textbook for introductory astronomy students?

Adam Frank: I have been writing for popular science audiences for a long time, so even though I am a practicing scientist, I always felt that it was important to reach out to people who probably don’t have much experience with science. And textbooks for intro astronomy courses are really one of the few places that many people, many U.S. citizens, will ever get a direct experience with science. So, I felt that I wanted to use the skills I learned as a science writer for the New York Times and for NPR and other places to try to make science accessible for intro students. If you are an astronomy 101 student, many times you are taking it because it is a requirement, you don’t have much experience with science, or you don’t consider yourself to be a science person. One of the first lessons I learned is that you need to have other voices in addition to the narrative to give it a sense of drama, to give students a sense of connection. You make it easier for the nonscience reader to stay engaged and give them a reason to turn the page and stay with the text.

NA: What are you most excited about in the new edition?

Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy, is pictured at the VISTA Collaboratory at the University of Rochester June 4, 2018. // photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

AF: One of the things that is really important to us in this book is getting students to understand how science works. We added things like “Anatomy of a Discovery”, where we have a full-page spread that shows students how a discovery was made. We have both the people and the principles behind the discovery really at the fore. We want to show students that astronomy is done by people—a diverse range of people, men and women from all over the world have come together in this remarkable process we call science and made these discoveries.

NA: You have interviewed a lot of really interesting scientists for your book. How did you choose whom to include, and do you have any memorable moments from your conversations?

AF: I wanted a really diverse range of voices. I wanted young scientists at the beginning of their career and extremely established scientists, and I wanted scientists from all different kinds of backgrounds. I wanted them to tell their stories about how they learned about science, how they got engaged in science, as well as describing in detail for the students the kinds of things you want astronomy 101 students to learn. There are two stories that really stand out. One is Adam Reiss telling me the story of the remarkable moment when he realized that he had a Nobel prize-winning result in his hands in the dark of night and how much that terrified him because if he was wrong about this, it would end his career. Another great story is Alyssa Goodman telling the story of how she discovered a fundamental insight into the magnetic fields of molecular clouds. She was living at Arecibo and living in one of those little huts in a tropical lifestyle while she was doing the research.  I like things like that that really humanize the science. Science is done by people and they have really interesting and exciting stories. 

NA: You recently published Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. What was your inspiration for that book? 

AF: The book, Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, came from two things: my longtime interest in life in the universe and from my popular writing for National Public Radio for the 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog that I wrote for about eight years. What I was really looking to do: was to give people a way to understand climate change and global warming in a much broader context. Part of the great fun of the book was telling the story of the long history of human beings thinking about life on other worlds and civilizations on other worlds. I hope that it has contributed in a small way to giving people a new way to think about the changes that human civilization is bringing on the planet and the challenges and possibilities that raises.

NA: What interesting research are you working on now?

AF: The most interesting thing that my research group is doing is looking at atmospheric loss from exoplanets. If planets orbiting other stars are in the right position, the light from the stars will burn off the upper atmospheres. It could get into a runaway state where you could lose a great deal of your atmosphere or it could modify the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and change the planet’s habitability. 

NA: What do you like to do when you are not working on books or doing research?

AF: I have two oppositely oriented things that I like to do when I am not doing research. One is that I am a big backpacker. I really like going out in the woods and spending as much time as I can there. I find something very powerful about being in the woods. The other thing I really like to do that is the exact opposite is that I like to play videogames. I really like games that have a story in them. I also like a lot of space games. Fighting space aliens is really fun. I am very interested in the technology of the storytelling. Videogames allow you to tell stories, which is an ancient human art, but in an entirely new way.  

NA: Did your love of videogames inspire you to create At Play in the Cosmos: The Videogame?

AF: Absolutely. My love of playing videogames really informed the choices we made in the videogame. I have played so many games that I kind of knew what the genre demanded, what were good choices for games. The most important thing for an educational game is that it doesn’t suck.  It’s got to be fun. In the history of educational games, one of the things that was learned early on is that it doesn’t matter how amazing your graphics are – if it isn’t a fun game, people aren’t going to play. So, what we wanted to do was combine learning the rules of astronomy with a fun game by making the rules of astronomy the things you have to know to complete the next level. Astronomy is perfectly designed for this. If you want to throw a giant rock at a space alien, you need to know Newton’s laws. 

Click here to learn more about At Play in the Cosmos: The Videogame

Click here to check out Adam’s work